At 3:00 a.m., the only sounds in the church are the shifting winds outside, whispering insistently through the fir trees, now and then eliciting a groan from the old building. The empty nave is lit with flickering candlelight, the soaring peak of the timbered rafters invisible in the gloom far above. A serene Christus Rex gazes out, overlooking a sea of empty pews, overlooking the prie-dieu on which I kneel. Even though the Christus Rex is joined this year by half a dozen beautifully solemn icons, I am corporeally alone.
I am keeping vigil, standing watch, a prelude to the Great Vigil. Each year, my tradition stands vigil from sundown on Maundy Thursday to before dawn on Easter Sunday. We take turns, standing watches, alone, quiet, save for the wind and the creaking old church.
It is a time to contemplate, to supplicate, to pray.
This hour of the morning — a time when most of the nation is asleep — is a perfect time to reflect on the mystery of the Resurrection, the universal gift for humankind.
The faithless scoff at such superstition. They pat themselves on the back for accepting as truth only that which human science can prove. I see just one problem: Accepting as truth only that which human science can prove is a profoundly narrow perspective. It effectively hobbles the mind from contemplating the science-transcending truth found in the realm of faith.
Make no mistake, I am not rejecting science — human science, as I like to call it. I was a physics major in school — I am a big fan of science. Like most people, I recognize that there exists a great deal of information we do not yet know. But I am convinced there is an even bigger body of knowledge that we are not capable of knowing. By this larger measure, human science seems very small.
I am a Christian, an Anglican Catholic who believes science and faith are utterly compatible even though they sometimes seem at odds.
We humans tend to think in terms of human scale. We measure nearly everything in relation to it. Indeed, our thinking is constrained by our human scale — most people rarely or never venture beyond that frontier. When the constraint of human scale is shed, the new view of ourselves, our planet, our universe is breathtaking. Personally, I believe it’s easier to find God, too.
Many people see the imperfections of our lives as proof there is no God. Misery and suffering could never be permitted by a benevolent deity. They see human cleverness as what will eventually save us, not what got us into trouble in the first place. They’re content to buy the long odds that all of this would fall into place so perfectly and so randomly. They usually fail to see that the imbalances, the tragedies, the suffering and all the ills plaguing us are caused not by God but by us, by our collective action or inaction. And if we can’t explain an act of God, that, itself, must prove there is no God.
I believe there is a God who has great interest in what we’re doing here. I believe he has certain expectations of us, although I think most unbelievers would be shocked to discover pure Christianity is quite organic. Instead of the expected mantle of rules, they might find instead an exhilarating freedom. I regret God’s message of liberation and salvation has sometimes been corrupted to subjugate and to oppress — simple Christian discipline turned into mechanisms for control.
On the other hand, God never intended us to embrace the free-for-all carnival of self-indulgence in which some proudly wallow.
We crave balance ultimately, don’t we?
The frankincense has died out, leaving its fragrant tendrils of ash hanging gently in the twilight. The incense lingers stilly in the air around me but outside, I can hear the wind agitating the trees. The old church creaks and groans again.
It’s nearly 4:00 a.m. My watch is almost over. But I will return next year, standing vigil in the wee hours.
Whether you are a person of faith or a person of none, I wish you Easter blessings.
Photograph © 2022 Matthew Meador
5 Replies to “Standing watch”
Matt, excellent personal writing… as usual !!!
My first Easter with Graham, we were in Pueblo, Colorado and we took the 2am-3am hour for the vigil. He brought his recorder and played hymns. I sat in the darkened space, at peace. My contemplation was, of course, different from yours. I spent a lot of time pondering how mankind attacks the differences between us instead of massaging the similarities. Happy Easter, Matthew.
Thanks for your insight