Sometimes things happen in church.
Tonight, as I stood at the altar, saying the prayer of offering, someone entered the worship space and I froze. It was the way he entered, coming in fairly quickly, not walking forward to one of the altars, or coming towards the sanctuary to join us. He cut across, to the fair aisle, the hidden aisle, the place of greatest shadow. He had a hood raised, and a large puffy coat unzipped, but wrapped around him.
It might have just been a wanderer, someone seeking shelter. But it felt wrong, and I was very aware that there were only three of us at the eucharist tonight, all way up by the altar, and he was out of sight. I watched as I said the prayer, and tried to assess options.
There was a moment, just a moment, when I saw him moving and I came within half a breath of saying ‘Run! Into the sacristy. Now.’ But I wasn’t sure yet — so I did something else instead.
I left the altar and walked towards him — and towards the light switches, because we had been lulled by a light evening into too much carelessness. I think I said to the others, ‘stay here.’ I certainly thought it, and they did.
I spoke towards him, saying loudly, ‘let me give you some light, so you can see better.’
He walked towards me and said, ‘is it alright that I am here? Can I stay?’
I relaxed a bit, and said yes. He was welcome to stay to pray or for some quiet. We would continue the service. I returned to the altar and began the eucharistic prayer. He sat in a pew. Then shifted, and wandered again. He came up into the choir where we had been before we moved to the altar. I called ‘you are welcome to join us here.’ And then realised — there were handbags. He suddenly walked out.
And as I said ‘handbags’ to the congregation, one realised hers was missing, and ran like a flash after him.
‘Don’t go alone. Don’t put yourself in danger,’ I said as I too ran from the altar to follow her. By the time I caught up, they were on the path, and she had confronted him. She took her bag off him, and he did not resist.
We were very lucky. Had he wanted to harm us, he could have. For some reason, he seemed unclear of his own desire.
But later — once the adrenaline was gone — and once I had shown the tiny Tuesday night congregation where the hidden exits were, and told them that if I ever gave them a command to ‘Go’ they must obey. Into the sacristy. Lock the door. My phone will be in my bag or on the desk. Better one person in danger, and three people safe with a phone than all at risk. They must go. But later, I wondered…
What happened that Maundy Thursday night?
What happened when the soldiers came for Jesus?
I have always, always preached this as betrayal. The disciples scattering. Fear overcoming love.
But what if he wanted them to go? What if they were right to flee? Run. Scatter. Dissolve into shadows.
What if Jesus walked toward the cross, not desolate or afraid, but thanking God the others had all gotten away?