Owyn J. Ferguson admits he has never been so intentionally present to the events of a Holy Week as he was this year. From Maundy (Holy) Thursday to Easter Sunday, he said he felt fully immersed in the recreation and remembrance of the Lord’s Passion, and being in the land where it took place only added to his feeling of closeness.
“I saw it as an honor to be a part of all the services that the monastery offered during Holy Week, particularly altar serving on Good Friday and Easter Sunday,” said Ferguson, 22, who is in Tabgha, Israel.
But he does admit that attending so many services and doing his best to follow the hymns, readings, and homilies in German was certainly a bit exhausting.
After participating in a thrilling Holy Land Palm Sunday procession, Ferguson followed up what was a once-in-a-lifetime event with even more memorable Passover experiences.
Ferguson is on a year-long volunteerism stint at the Benedictine Monastery of Tabgha, which is located at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes. He and his fellow volunteers were given time off work which allowed them to attend all liturgies over the weekend, beginning with Maundy Thursday.
On Maundy Thursday at 6:30 a.m., Ferguson celebrated Tenebrae (matins and lauds for the last three days of Holy Week, at which candles are successively extinguished) in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish (Church of the Multiplication for short), which along with noon prayer and the decoration of the church was done by the monks and volunteers at the Benedictine Monastery of Tabgha.
That evening at Maundy Thursday Mass for the first time since last March, the church he said had a substantial congregation from guests staying at the German Association of the Holy Land’s Pilgerhaus.
Ferguson was disappointed washing of the feet could not happen, but was understanding of health guidelines in light of the pandemic, which meant it could not happen. But he said the tools for doing so were still set up on the chancel area symbolically.
The Bahamian also shared a traditional Seder meal in silence with fellow volunteers and the monks. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, Ferguson, the monks and fellow volunteers spent time in adoration until midnight.
The faithful are encouraged to spend a suitable period of time during the night in church in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament that has been solemnly reserved.
Ferguson had similarly light Seder meals for lunch and dinner over the course of the following two days.
The Seder food was entirely different from what the Bahamian is accustomed to. The Good Friday fried fish and hot cross buns was this year replaced with a typical Passover Kosher meal of unleavened bread, boiled eggs, salads, nuts, vegetables and soups.
“On Good Friday, like pathetic fallacy in a piece of literature, there were gray skies, gusty winds, rain, and thunder – weather attributing the mood in light of the remembrance of the death of our Lord,” he said. “That morning, we celebrated Stations of the Cross Tenebrae Service in the church.”
Tenebrae (Latin for shadows) is one of the oldest Christian traditions commemorating the crucifixion of Christ. A Tenebrae service typically takes place in a dark room lit by a number of candles. A series of Scripture readings chronicles Jesus’ final week, ending with his burial. After each reading, a candle is snuffed out, until only the Christ candle remains lit. The final candle is carried out of the sanctuary to symbolize Christ’s three days in the tomb.
Ferguson participated in Good Friday Mass that ran at least two hours.
“Language difference aside, the service resembled what I had been exposed to for Good Friday at Saint John’s Abbey [Collegeville, Minnesota] and Saint Matthew’s Anglican Church, New Providence, high church liturgy – walking the congregation through the Passion of our Lord through Scripture, but also through rituals, symbols, and chorus that add to the solemness of the occasion.”
Due to pandemic health guidelines, in lieu of kissing the cross in veneration, parishioners presented the cross with a red rose.
“One differentiating practice from this service that I found particularly fascinating and memorable, was that at the end of Mass, we [celebrating priests, assisting priest, and the other serving acolyte] laid the cross on a white cloth, decorated the body with herbs and spices and wrapped the body in the cloth. Then, we carried the body/cross, as would pallbearers, into the tabernacle area for adoration.” It’s a custom Ferguson said that resembles the burial of a Jewish male.
Following mass, Ferguson engaged in confession, and Compline [Latin word meaning completion] at 8 p.m. Compline is a service of quietness and reflection before rest at the end of the day.
On Holy Saturday, he had Tenebrae in the morning again, noon prayer, and prepared the church for Easter Sunday. Vespers, in the evening, was celebrated at the seaside prayer space on the Pilgerhaus grounds.
Ferguson arrived at church at 3:45 a.m. Sunday to prepare the edifice for its 4 a.m. service start. He took the opportunity to look into the tabernacle area and found it empty. The body and cross were gone. It was an experience he said he will never forget.
“For me, this experience resembled that of the guard and the women who came to discover an empty tomb – a profound feeling that I will always remember.”
At the beginning of church, Ferguson joined parishioners in gathering around a fire for blessing and to light their candles, which kept the entire edifice lit during the early half of the service. He said there were more rituals and readings than he was used to during the mass.
“For the Eucharist, we processed to Dalmanutha [the unknown destination of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where, according to the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus miraculously multiplied seven loaves of bread and a few fish to feed a crowd of 4,000, got into a boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha].”
Ferguson said he was privileged to get the opportunity watch the sunrise there.
“At the conclusion of the communion, we processed back to the church, the lights were turned on, and we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord; a three-hour service that was exceptionally powerful.”
The Bahamian then joined the monks, nuns, staff, volunteers and Pilgerhaus guests at what he describes as a lovely breakfast at the guest house, after which he got to spend time on the Sea of Galilee on a pre-lunch boat ride.
On the boat, volunteers were asked to give a selection – Ferguson led the group in the chorus to the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” – a tune that he said all the Germans were familiar with, luckily. Then they indulged in a seafood fettuccini dish for lunch and dinner.
Vespers and Compline were later both celebrated in the church, with only monks and volunteers in attendance, to close out Holy Week.
Ferguson arrived in Tabgha in November 2020 to participate in the monastic life of the community as a member of the Saint John’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps (SJBVC), which exists to provide a year of volunteer service for graduates of Saint John’s University, Minnesota, at a monastery of the worldwide Benedictine confederation, and to support the work, prayer and life of Benedictine monasteries around the world.
Ferguson’s responsibility for keeping Biet Noah running on a daily basis includes welcoming and serving guests, cleaning, repair and maintenance work, gardening, cooking for the community and construction projects for the retreat house, monastery and church.
“My reason for doing the program in general is that through the last couple of summers working in corporate citizenship, I really just gained an appreciation for the citizenship part of corporate, and I thought that a volunteer experience would be very humbling and give me an appreciation and recognition for dignity in all types of work and all types of people; that’s why I wanted to do a volunteer program,” he told The Nassau Guardian in an earlier interview.
He chose to serve in Israel because of the service the monastery offers.