After Maundy Thursday services, many people in Rome take to the streets to visit other churches to see their Altar of Repose, the side altar designated to hold the consecrated bread and wine once the main altar is stripped at the end of the Holy Thursday service. There is much written about this tradition, which has its roots in the practice of the Seven Churches Visitation, a Holy Thursday pilgrimage to the major churches of Rome.
Churches beautifully decorate their Altars of Repose. Each altar is an expression of what the Eucharist and this holiest of weeks mean. St. Paul’s went for a candle-lit Garden of Eden theme, signifying the birth of new creation in the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.
A parishioner and I joined the evening’s pilgrimage. We found beautiful settings full of meaning. One particular altar was set up as a long table decorated with sprigs of wheat, with bread and wine at each place setting. I felt both invited to remember that night with Jesus and his disciples and also to join them at table.
As we walked, prayed and meditated, we told our stories, lifting up our own experiences of death and resurrection. My traveling companion remembered visiting the churches in the small Italian town of their youth. (They called this event fare i sepolcri, literally and quite informally, “making/doing the sepulchres,” as the side tabernacle is also the Good Friday sepulchre.) There was a hint of Emmaus in our evening (Luke 24:13-35), and joining with so many others in conversation on the streets and in quiet reverence and awe before the altars made it the perfect pilgrimage. Reflection, refreshment, and always, faith, hope and love.