The day after my grandmother died, my family gathered in from near and far. Late afternoon, into the evening, sitting in her kitchen and living room, we talked. Coffee was plenteous, a bottle of wine, one platter overflowing with cold cuts, and another with Entenmanns coffee cake. We planned for the funeral, started thinking about distribution of her worldly possessions. Mostly, we shared memories and stories. We laughed about her personality quirks, we sighed about our experiences of her support and care, and we reminded ourselves of the wisdom she had given us. The body of the deceased wasn’t with us in the house, but her spirit sure was there.
Decades later, I was priest of the Advocate when a beloved parishioner died on a Thursday afternoon. A meeting was scheduled at the Church that night. But we knew that our sorrow would prevail, so we announced that we would gather in the Chapel and hold vigil instead. We used Evening Prayer as our guide, read scripture, prayed the Litany at the Time of Death, and shared memories and stories of our friend who had died. We laughed at turns of phrase he had used, reminded ourselves of the ways he had inspired us. We mourned together, and were comforted by our shared memories and shared loss.
These gatherings are not all that unusual. They happen in every faith tradition, in families and households everywhere. The Jews have a custom of “sitting Shiva” for 7 days of mourning, praying and sharing. It is possible that Mary and her friends sat Shiva when Jesus died. (For a day or two anyway!).
In Holy Week, the week leading up to the celebration of Easter, Christians often keep Vigil through the night between the Maundy Thursday liturgy, when commemorates Jesus’ “last supper” with his disciples, and noon on Good Friday, when we remember Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. This custom of keeping vigil emerged out of the story Jesus’ response to his disciples when they fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before his arrest. “So, you could not stay awake with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). The Maundy Thursday Vigil is traditionally held at an “Altar of Repose”, usually festooned with flowers, and attended by one or more of the faithful praying quietly at assigned hours through the night and early morning.
A Good Friday Wake is quite different. Sometime in the evening, most likely after dinner, “friends and family” of the deceased are invited to gather in the Chapel. The Wake can last as little as one hour or as many as three. Three hours allows for the symmetry of the three hours at mid-day, though 1.5 – 2 hours are more doable. People are invited to come for the whole time, or to drop in for a while when they can, just as they would for any wake.
And as with a wake, the atmosphere is a blend of somber and cheery, a blend of sacred Church and gentle fellowship as well. Chairs are set up around a table, or choir style, facing each other for ease of conversation. On a table or bench nearby, a burial icon of Jesus is laid. Votive candles, flowers and herbs surround the icon. Lights are dim and candles are burning. Devotional crosses, or images of the Pieta or the Harrowing of Hell can be set up at stations elsewhere in the room for individual contemplation. Unlit candles and flowers can be made available to be placed around the icon in acts of personal prayer and piety.
Within the room, or in a room nearby, hot tea and hot cross buns are provided, give a family home component to the atmosphere.
The time is roughly divided into half-hours. Each half-hour beginning with a bell toll, then followed by 10 minutes or so of readings (Scripture, poetry and prose), selected by the facilitators. The bell tolls again, and those gathered are invited to share memories or stories about Jesus. Some recount Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture, others as he has been revealed in sacrament or personal prayer. Some traditions might call this “testimony”. But it is more communal than individual. It allows for conversation, as one person’s favorite story is shared by another, or stimulates a different memory.
“Do you remember that time when he wanted us to try to feed that whole crowd of people who’d gathered to hear him preach?”
Reflecting on the feeding of the multitude, one person said, “He asked us, ‘What have you got?’”. And then added reflectively, “He used to ask us that a lot…”
One person said, “I guess the first time I met Jesus was as a kid in church camp. He singled me out to play throwing water balloons with. I always remember he was so kind…”
Some of these stories are prepared ahead of time by the leaders, but most emerge, organically. And we feel at once shy and bold, vulnerable and faithful.
Another ten minutes, and the facilitator tolls the bell again. Now there is a period of silent meditation until the next half-hour rolls around. People sit or stand, walk about, get some tea, visit one of the other icons, or leave. It is important that people feel they can freely come and go in that time, with as little awkwardness as possible. Though even in awkwardness, we experience a little more of what is happening, of what happened, in those hours.
In practice, some half hours have more silence than others. Sometimes the structure slides away, and there is simply silence and comment, silence and prayer. It’s possible to vary the focus or style of these half hours. One might have a good bit of singing, for example, and be announced ahead of time.
We often end the evening with the facilitator saying:
“I remember Jesus, who said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.’
Let’s pray together the prayer he taught us: Our Father in heaven…
I remember Jesus, who said, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.’ Let us share with each other a sign of Christ’s peace.”
The Peace is exchanged before and head out into the night.
Not everyone will be comfortable with this Good Friday Wake, of course. Some will even find it kind of weird. It does require leadership and modeling by the facilitator(s), and also an ability to stay out of the way once others start to speak. It requires a certain imagination, and a willingness for some of those gathered to share of their own experience. It requires an overall spirit of acceptance and hospitality. No one should feel pressured to speak; there is a lot to be given just by being present, a lot to be gained just by listening. For many, the Wake helps to make the story and Jesus more vivid and more real. More incarnate. For many, the Wake helps to form us for the Resurrection, and for the life of faith.
“This was folk theology”, Miranda said, “a community of faith doing theology together, in the most amazing way. …. It’s been very hard for me to remember, all day, that it’s not Easter yet—not because, sitting around the icon, we forgot that we were grieving a departed friend, but because in our shared grieving and remembering, that friend became so real and present to me.”
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar
Link to Episcopal Church Vital Practices Blog.