St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, N.J.
Some altar guild workers will tell you that preparing for Maundy Thursday is the busiest time of the year. A lot will be happening at the evening service, and many preparations need to be made to make sure all will be on hand when required. It is good to have all details ironed out well in advance, with lists made, and items ready for order by the end of this week. The ewer and basin for foot-washing should be polished, ample quantities of towels at the ready, and the persons standing by in the sacristy for the stripping of the altar and receiving of altar items should be selected now. White altar hangings, including the white veiling for the cross (the purple must be changed for white on Maundy Thursday), a spotless white fair linen, and ideally a white linen cloth protector which fits the tops of the altar of repose, an ample supply of candles, matches, polished candlesticks and ciborium, and of course, the flowers and decorations for the Chapel of Repose.
Not all churches have a side altar, but many beautiful Chapels of Repose can be constructed in another part of the church which are meditative and serene. Flowers and potted plants should be very fresh, as these usually will be held over for the Great Vigil decoration on Saturday and will also be the decoration on Easter Sunday morning. The photo above shows potted plants in woven baskets, which is a delightful and preferable alternative to garish tin foil in shades of pink, gold, and lavender. Natural-looking containers are a must when displaying potted plants. Opt for dull green paper from your nursery if no better option is available. Avoid bows and fripperies always. Potted palms left over from Palm Sunday make an effective green and tall backdrop for the Maundy Garden. The Chapel of Repose requires some careful thought to achieve the effect of harmony, tranquility and solemnity. I have seen some wonderful effects achieved with mosses, ferns, small pots of pansies and johnny-jump-ups, a little fountain, forced forsythia, pussy willows, miniature daffodils, and other delicate early Spring flowers. White flowers or pale pastels work well in flower vases for the altar gradines. Jasmine, camellias, gardinias, hydrangea, heathers, and lilac plants are useful to serve as mid-sized plantings in pots. Small shrubs or bushes which can be planted after Easter are economically sensible alternatives. Scharntner’s Farms in Exeter offers small potted shrubs, as do many RI nurseries. Lilies are an expected flower, but be sure the pollen on the ends of the stamens is removed before the lilies are brought into church. Get lilies with most of the buds tight, as they will open quickly in a warm room. You will want tall, medium, and short variety of plants to give the effect of being in a real garden. Don’t be afraid to use props, pedestals, and even bricks to achieve varying heights, -just be sure to disguise your mechanics!
As each parish must make arrangements according to its worship space, each Garden of Repose will be unique. Still, we can all aim for a beautiful and meditative place where care and thought have gone into creating a haven for contemplation. Sadly, few photographs exist of Maundy chapels. I have seen everything from paving stones, fountains, beach glass and sand, shells, pebbles,elaborate canopies, and even a live canary in a small wicker cage hidden in the greenery with tiny, realistic silk butterflies perched on shrubberies. That which evokes nature seems most successful. Adequate seating, some reading material relevant to the day, and candlelight are all important. I have always used a linen cloth to fit the altar top over the fair linen which will catch wax from dripping candles and falling flowerets and leaves. It is a great precaution to take in protecting the fair linen. It is good to remember that the priest and procession must be able to get into the space during the transfer of the sacrament. Common sense is always a useful commodity in all endeavors in church decoration. Please share photographs of YOUR Garden of Repose this year.