I am not a very handy person. I miraculously passed shop class in high school, and I’ve never been good at fixing things of any kind.
There is one and only one exception to this ineptitude, and it involves a small wooden table that belonged to my wife’s maternal grandmother, Grandmother Guin. I don’t know how old the table is, but my wife can’t remember her grandmother’s house without it. It is certainly not something of recent vintage.
When it came into our possession it may have evidenced some potential, but in all honesty, it was pretty ugly. It was black. In fact, at first I thought it was painted black. It had thousands of tiny little bumps, sort of like pimples. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having it in the house, but I knew, no matter it’s aesthetic value, it had great sentimental value for someone I love very much. Lack of handiness aside, I determined to refinish it.
I began with some sort of chemical to strip off what I thought to be the black paint. Well, it wasn’t black paint at all. It was the accumulation of age, a lifetime of being used caked on in the living of life by a family, including my wife. Underneath, there turned out to be a beautiful wood, lightly stained in a very rich and not-too-dark brown. The contrasting grains of the wood shown through clearly. It turned out not to be necessary even to re-stain it. A little polish was all that was necessary to turn it into a prized possession in our home, in which it has had a prominent place in the entryway ever since. All it took was a little stripping away.
Today is Maundy Thursday. Across the world, churches will mark the occasion by the stripping of the altar. First, all extraneous furniture and cushions will be removed from the sanctuary. Candlesticks will be taken away. Any reserved sacrament will be removed from the tabernacle and its door left open. The altar hangings will be taken off, carefully folded, and put away, and the altar’s surface will be lovingly washed. It is impossible not to recall the washing of Christ’s dead body following the crucifixion. Finally, the church is silent, the activity concluded. All rests in silence. And then, in a stark expression of symbolic reality, the light is turned off. All is dark. Then people leave.
Another year’s worth of accumulated gunk will be gone. The reality is overpoweringly stark. However, the gunk turns out not to be black at all. It is just the accumulation of another year’s worth of living life with all its good and its bad.
The unadorned altar is not the end. It is the expectant beginning of another year of life. We hope the life will be newer, and it often is at first. At some point, it will darken, and the pimpled gunk will begin to appear again. It is not a defeat, though. It is a promise of God’s abiding faithfulness to always make room for us to begin anew in the clean reality of the unadorned but starkly real.
I think about Grandmother Guin’s table often. For one thing, I see it each and every time I come through the front door, whether that be joyously, exhaustedly, hopefully, or defeatedly. Gunk accumulates slowly. I am unaware of it building up. The table still looks as beautiful as the day I finished with it to me, the chemical stripping having revealed its underlying simplicity and elegance. But there will come a time when it will need to be stripped again. I hope my children, or perhaps my grandchildren, will attend to it. And if they do, the gunk they strip off will be the gunk, the good gunk and the bad gunk, of the living of my life. I like that Grandmother Guin’s table will then be fresh again. Perhaps I can be as well.