Thursday, April 09, 2009

Glimpse of Glory

It's Skaertorsdag--Maundy Thursday in Denmark--and it's also one year after my mother died on April 9, 2008.

We drove around rural Jutland near Aalborg looking at churches and their graveyards, trying to find my relatives with the surname Nejsby or Norgaard. The Lutheran churches had services scheduled for Longfredag (Good Friday), but there was no sign of any service on Thursday evening. We had to leave the next day.

We had found one Baptist church the day before, in Vaarst, where my family had been members of a Baptist church in 1870--and no Baptist churches in any other city, so I planned to return there in the evening for a possible Maundy Thursday service.

When we arrived at 6:40 and I studied the list of services, I realized that at 18:30 a service had begun--we heard singing and children's voices. I persuaded John to join me in attending, though he was worried that there might be a foot-washing service.

"Baptists don't do that," I asserted hopefully. "Only Episcopals and Catholics."

As we entered, we realized everyone was in the church hall sharing a meal there. John started to protest that we weren't welcome and turned to leave, but two kind women had seen us and came out into the hall to welcome us and invite us in.

Soon we were seated at a table, part of a U-shaped set of tables where about fifty people were reinacting the Last Supper. A cross-shaped arrangement of one hundred or so votive candles glowed in the center on the floor.

Though we felt embarrassment at being strangers in an intimate group and at being late, soon we were singing a hymn that sounded like "The Church's One Foundation" but with different words.

Then a Taize song was chanted, followed by singing a Danish hymn I didn't recognize.

Then the pastor spoke in Danish.

He read from John 13, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, and then read from I Corinthians 11:23-26. I made out the words "the new covenant in my blood" ("den nye pagt ved mit blod").

Then he broke a large loaf of homemade bread and blessed a flask of grape juice. These were passed around, each person breaking off a piece of bread for the person next to him or her and pouring two inches of grape juice into the neighbor's cup.

The silence in candlelight was warm and holy. John and I took part in the ritual, and I was convinced that I shared some of the same genes with these people, as well as the same faith.

The deep communion was like that of the church members in Babbette's Feast, which I had watched a week before flying to Denmark.

When they were gathered around a humble table, "...the rooms had been filled with a heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance" (p. 53).

In that scene, a man speaks who had years earlier passed up a chance for love with one of two sisters in the story:

But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude... See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!


Then I noticed it was 7 pm, and with a nine-hour time difference, 10 am in California.

"Just the time my mother died a year ago," I realized with awe.

At the moment marking her death, here I was sharing a holy meal honoring Jesus' last intimate breaking of bread with his disciples before his death--a meal where Jesus is present for us, where heaven and earth join.

In the joyous, familiar faces of these people, I felt the presence of Jesus, my mother, my great-grandmother (born in this village), and all the believers who had lived here in the 1800s and since then.

The usual curtain between earth and heaven, life and afterlife, was drawn aside. We were all very near and joyous.

After the service, the people asked us where we were from.

In halting Danish, I said, "Vi kommer fra California. Jeg soeger den familie Nesby. Min bedste mor bo her." ("I am looking for the Nejsby family. My great-grandmother lived here.")

The man and two women across from me said, "We three are all Nesbys-- there are many Nejsbys here!" He began speaking some English and called over his brother who had traveled in the US.

We shared their dinner of salad, meat, bread and compared our family trees. I told them that she had been a member of this church, and they told me that another family member had been the pastor.

The church had first met in secret at the family's farm because changing to Baptist faith in this Lutheran country had caused them to be rejected by others.

Their great-grandfather and mine had been brothers. They were as amazed at our arrival as we were to discover so many third cousins.

Soon were were in the sanctuary taking photos of us with fifteen or so family members. Then they took us to see the "Nesbygaard," family home and barn over 200 years old.

Then we went with them to Jens Anker Nasby's home where we studied their family history records--including the name of my great-grandmother, when she immigrated, where she lived and died in the US.

We had to leave the next morning to catch a ferry from Aarhus back to Copenhagen, but all evening we shared so much joy--a gift from God on this day marking my mother's death.

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