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A curious figure of Anglican liturgy who has always caught my eye is the verger.  He is that somber fellow who comes into church ahead of the priest in the processional, dressed in black and carrying a rather severe looking baton capped with an equally unyielding, silver cross.  It is a weapon—a canonical billy club, for want of a better term.  The verger is the “heat,” the protector of the faithful, an historical remnant of what was once something like the priest’s Secret Service detail.  His ceremonial office derives from the not infrequent need in ancient Christianity for a stout man who would brook no nonsense from the crowd and use a stick carried in hand—a “verge”—to defend the priest against an unruly and unbelieving mob.

The verger entered the cathedral of Grace Episcopal Church here in Charleston for Maundy Thursday service, yesterday, carrying his staff firmly and confidently as usual.  But after the footwashing and Passion, in which the church annually remembers our Lord being led away to suffering and death and his disciples scattering in fear, the verger left the church empty-handed. The surrender of this weapon symbolizes those dark hours of hopelessness and danger for the followers of Christ, who had witnessed the  torture and death of their protector and feared the same fate for themselves.  Not for nothing did Peter deny Christ. None of them could yet imagine the power of the resurrection against the power of Rome.  All was lost. Their world had ended. Their shepherd was gone, and they were truly defenseless without him against the malevolent forces of the world.

So too today, Good Friday, the verger entered the darkened church carrying no weapon to defend us against those forces.  He led the priest to the empty altar draped in black—an image of the despair of death still so distant from the unimaginable joy of Easter.  Today, we as the shepherd’s flock are meant to feel our vulnerability and the precariousness of our situation. Without Christ, we are utterly lost.  We cower in darkness, powerless before the enemies of the light. We, like the disciples, are armed with only the thin, bending reed of our faltering faith.

But hope rises amid despair.  For in the kingdom of God, nothing is so formidable and so powerful as weakness. In weakness and humility do we find the invincibility of faith and the strong ally of grace. Through faith and grace did a homeless, itinerant vagabond of first century Palestine, abandoned by his friends and betrayed to a thief’s death upon a cross, rise to become the Savior of the World and the central figure of all human history.

“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”  —Pope Francis