My mother had called to let me know that my father had a part in their village church's reenactment of the Last Supper. Would I like to go? It was Holy Week of 1997 and Sukie and I were on sabbatical, so were free from parish duties for several months.
I told my mother that I had planned on attending the liturgy for Maundy Thursday at the Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, so politely declined her offer. However, almost as soon as I had hung up the phone, it struck me what a rare and precious opportunity I had just passed up. I knew how committed my father was to his church and how much his participation in these reenactments had meant to him in the past.
I called my mother back the next day and let her know I'd be coming. What time would she like to be picked up?
That Maundy Thursday, when we arrived at the church, candles were alight in the windows, flickering yellow. We entered the sanctuary lit solely by the candles placed around the windowsills as well as on a long table at the head of the church. The table was arrayed with goblets and plates of food. A recording of Gregorian Chant playing in the background further established the hushed, prayerful atmosphere.
The actors--the twelve disciples plus Jesus himself--were seated in the pews with the rest of us where, from their places, they in turn stood up and addressed the congregation, telling the tale of their having been called by Jesus. Each disciples' narrative ended with the question: "Is it I, Lord? Is it I?" referring to their anxious self-examination in light of Jesus having said that one who sat with him that night would betray him.
My father played the role of the apostle John. John also happened to be his given name. Earlier that day, he had borrowed my Birkenstock sandals to "authenticate" his role. He did a fine job with his lines, conveying them sincerely, at times passionately. I was moved at how fitting it was that my father should play this role of the Beloved Disciple--the disciple whom Jesus loved--as he had sought sincerely throughout his life to be a faithful follower of Christ. As he had aged, the grace of that devotion became daily more apparent, as he lived a life of love and service in his community, as he played with Bekah and Anna, then seven and fours years old.
After the play, the congregation was invited forward to receive communion at the table behind which the apostles stood or were seated, with the figure of Jesus at the center of them all. I took the bread and wine, then quietly congratulated my father. I was happy not to have lost the chance to be with him in that way. Surely, I thought to myself, because of my parish duties and my aging father, the opportunity would likely not come again. I was grateful for the grace that had opened the way for me to call my mother back and to accept her invitation.
I drove my mother home that night, back up the hill over the dirt road made muddy and rutted by the late March thaw. Leaving, I looked up at the sky and saw distinctly the Hale-Bopp comet with its milky white tail against the dark night sky. I turned off the car and parked by the side of the road to get a better view. Sitting in silence, I was amazed by that comet streaking across the heavens, some twenty-two million miles away. It would eventually be dubbed the Great Comet of 1997, one of the brightest to be seen in many decades.
It was true that I would not again see my father play a part in his church's reenactment of the Last Supper. Dad died of leukemia in February of the following year.
This year, his gentle and gracious spirit is alive in me. And I'll offer thanks for his life tonight when I go to the Cathedral for the liturgy of Maundy Thursday.