Stations of the Cross

Head Verger, Chris, takes a practical look at Holy Week and what that means for the St James’s verger team.

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The arrival of Holy Week brings mixed feelings. It is the culmination of Lent, a particular season of reflection and penitence, yet life has carried on much the same as it ever did. The day-to-day rhythm at St James’s has continued. Services, concerts, the market, the caravan, Redemption Roasters, FEAST, Sunday Breakfast and much more. However, all the while in the prayer corner, lurking since Ash Wednesday, a life sized or (as Lucy once reflected) ‘death sized’ cross has stood, not a primary focus but always there at the periphery looming large, a relentless signal that something is coming. Holy Week beginning crystallizes this, in a solemn duty to revisit the events of the final week of Jesus of Nazareth, knowing that, although the end will be good, we must first confront the heart of a darkness threatening to overwhelm.

The verger team play an enormous part in telling this story. Alongside our job of keeping the site open, safe, clean and tidy we are working behind the scenes year-round on the myriad of liturgical details. Holy Week is our ‘Cup Final’! – everything builds towards and leads from it. There are a thousand things to do.

Palm Sunday – we’re off! Palms bedecked the church – their verdant green, an oasis after Lent’s long desert, contrasting dramatically with the deep red of the altar and vestments. Symbolic of fire, intensity, passion and the blood of Christ. The signs are already there that something big is happening. There were donkeys. Did I promise them to my son to get him to church for Palm Sunday? – maybe! Songs of “Hosanna!” rang through the church and the streets to the amusement and bemusement of passers-by.  The vergers are involved in the ceremony but always with one eye on the details. Will the donkeys make a ‘deposit’ on the church floor? Will the ageing PA system survive another overload? Somehow all is well, we crossed the first hurdle.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – It’s disconcerting – we’re in Holy Week but everything feels relatively ordinary, but something is different; the cross. Imperceptibly and without fanfare the cross that has loomed for so long in the side aisle has moved to the Narthex, draped in a blood red cloth that, like the altar frontals, carries so much symbolism and foreshadowing. The cross stands at the threshold, not yet the centre of attention, but implying a coming storm.

Maundy Thursday – We hit our stride! The red is gone, so too are the palms. Brilliant gold, red and white, signifying celebration and joy at the Last Supper, now adorns the altars and vestments. The cross is gone too, dismantled and lying inert on the ground like a cruel taunt; maybe the cup of suffering could pass from Jesus. Ahead of the beautiful evening Eucharist the vergers begin to strip the church back, the varied stuff of daily life disappears: candle stands are removed, furniture and anything that can be lifted is pulled away. The sanctuary lamp – the light of Christ which has burned bright in the side chapel since dawn last Easter is removed and extinguished, not to return until Easter morning. Like a wave pulling away from the shore before the tsunami hits; but we aren’t there yet. Towels, jugs and bowls are needed for the foot washing, preparations are made for building the Garden of Gethsemane. Then, in a flash the service concludes as the story upends itself, the final adornments necessary for the Eucharist are unceremoniously stripped away and taken to the vestry – by the end of tonight it will look as though a hurricane has passed through there. The watch is beginning, one eye on the weather, can the congregation go out or will they remain to see the garden emerge before their eyes? Palms, logs and candles create Gethsemane but dragged into its centre, is the cross. Not so inert after all. Placed beside it on the, now bare, altar is a ciborium, containing the last remaining blessed communion wafers, kept year-round in the small, covered wall safe (the aumbry). Christ is exposed, stripped bare, betrayed. 10pm arrives, the congregation depart but the vergers will stay – to clear away. One thing remains, raised into its stand, stark savagery clear for all to see. The time of the cross is here.

Good Friday – grief and sorrow crash together in a service that is poignantly beautiful. Scripture, silence and music all blend together as the vergers have the opportunity, more than any other time in Holy Week to sit helplessly at the foot of the cross. Nevertheless, there’s still work to be done, with our Rightguard security partners, we will keep watch – allowing you to hold your grief in peace. Outside the bustle of a Bank Holiday Friday afternoon carries on regardless.

Holy Saturday – the tide is turning, a hive of activity, like the day before a wedding. We’re hard at work for the big day. Baptism and Confirmation candidates head for the Cathedral, furniture returns, small stirrings. David, our parish administrator, and his team adorn the church for celebration, but the vergers have the privilege of taking the cross of suffering and raising it high above the altar rail… a new purpose in mind. We’ll work late into the night tonight; the Vigil must be observed in the silent darkness of the church but the vestry lights burn on as preparations are made for the following morning. And let’s not forget, the clocks go forward tonight!

Easter Morning – If we’re lucky we’ve had a couple of hours sleep, probably not. Too much to think about, is everything ready? Palms, bread, candles, trumpets, baptismal bowl, fire, paschal candle, chocolate eggs for the march to Piccadilly Circus and much more? What if the new fire doesn’t light? What if the candle goes out? The light of the risen Christ being snuffed out as soon as it’s lit… that has to be a bad omen, right? No time to worry now, as sure as darkness fell on Friday so the dawn comes on Sunday; everything will unfold as it always has done “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” The verger team are running on fumes by now. Come lunchtime we might still be on our feet but don’t expect a sensible answer to any question you ask us! Did we win? Did everything go according to plan? Much like a wedding, all the small details come together to create something unforgettable. In a world where so much seems to be in darkness this festival day reminds us that, even on the darkest of nights, the dawn is always coming; it may seem far off, but it IS coming.

When you enter the church on Easter morning, take a moment to observe the burst of life that fills the building. And there, at the front stands the cross, it’s menace rendered impotent, it’s hard, rough edges softened by moss, ivy, grasses and ferns. The instrument of suffering and death is wrapped in an embrace by life itself. Grave clothes hang discarded over its beams. Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered.

Palm Sunday

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Easter Day