Maundy Thursday

This post is an Excerpt from Tara Owen’s Book: Embracing the Body 


My jaw spasmed, clenching tight. Pain rippled through me.

Maundy Thursday. My favorite day of the year. 

I had taken the driver’s seat on the way to service. We were late. I drove aggressively. Careless enough of the cares of others on the road that my jet-lagged husband mentioned it. I hate being late.

And so I speed walked my way to the chapel, trying to control the pace, refusing to reach out for my husband’s hand, he who I had been without for nearly two weeks, who I professed to missing more than anything in the world. I needed to be on time. I need to be in the right.

But we weren’t late. Not really. I had read the time wrong, and we were half an hour early instead, there in time for rehearsals. It was then the first pain shot through my jaw. I rubbed at it absently and went to help fill the tubs for the foot washing with hot, hot water. Hot was we could stand. It would cool as the service progressed.

And then, sitting in the pews, early and woefully unrepentant for my control, my need to be perfect, my desire to save myself by being at the right places at the right times, it was then she came and asked us:

When the time comes, will you help strip the altar?

She used our names. Bryan and Tara. Us, in particular. I hesitate even to add our names to the request, to make the sentence a reference to me, in the flesh. Tara, the daughter of Sally, the granddaughter of Francis, the great granddaughter of Reginald.

Bryan and Tara, will you help betray Jesus?

Yes, we nodded. Of course we will help.

When she left, I turned wild-eyed to look at my husband, the muscle in my cheek clenching hard, harder.

Maundy Thursday is my favorite service, my favorite day, because of all that happens in it. After a flurry of activity in Jerusalem, temple-clearing and hosannas and watching a widow give her all, Jesus settles in with his beloveds to something he himself says that he has “eagerly desired” (Luke 22:15, NRSV). We don’t get that anywhere else—the idea that the Son of God is looking forward to something. And it’s us, in this moment. It’s washing our feet, gently, tenderly. It’s taking the bread and breaking it, offering the cup and blessing it. Take, eat, he says.

And I do. I receive.

My husband, who I had rejected only hours before in my need to prove my own righteousness, kneels down before me. The water is still hot, hotter than it’s ever been before, and I wince in surprise and sorrow. It has to be hot to wash my cold soul clean, to wake me physically to what is to come. He kneads my toes, my arch, my heel, and I remember Christ’s words about the serpent and the bruising. It’s been a long season of bruising, and suddenly the hands on my feet are Christ’s hands, rubbing the ache away. I look into Christ’s eyes, as he kneels before me. Oh, how often I betray you, I think. You are Christ made flesh.

Bare-footed, I return to my seat and in the silence, I watch our community knit together in humility. Newlyweds, whose first service together as a couple last year was this service, who married two months ago in this very church, approach the water. She washes him, and as he in turn serves her, I imagine his tears mingling with the water. He washes her clean, and they stand together, embracing.

A new father washes his infant daughter’s feet, dangling her above the basin as she is so often held above and away from the cares of this world. I know he would always hold her, if he could. Protecting, guarding, loving. Across from him, his wife kneels to wash the feet of a man without a home. Someone on whom the cares of the world weigh heavy and dark. Her mother heart tenderly embraces him.

Another mother’s eyes brim with tears as she watches her husband wash her son’s feet, strong hands serving a son grown strong in God. And then the son turns, and the tears spill as he washes his own son’s feet, her grandson, who is scooped close in his arms, carried again as she once carried him, all of his questions held tight in the embrace of a father.

After this, I watch the arms of the priests and deacons—brown and white, male and female, bearing on themselves disease and desperation, forgiveness and fear, hope and hosanna—rise in worship. I sing with my whole heart, May I never lose the wonder, the wonder of the cross. May I see it as the first time, standing as a sinner lost. I remember hearing these words first sung in a cathedral in England, as I stood by my best friend, ourselves both once lost but now found. I remember the moment that He found me, and the tears spill again.

And again my jaw spasms. 

The pain dogs me up to the altar. The hands of the priest wrap warmly around mine, and his eyes smile as he hands me the broken bread. The body of Christ, he says. His joy repeats Jesus’s words to His disciples, I have eagerly anticipated this moment, I have eagerly anticipated serving you.

I bow my head. I can feel the weight of my coming betrayal. My jaw throbs. I open my mouth only wide enough to slip the bread in through the pain. The wine stings as it slides down my throat. My feet chill on the stone floor.

He knows I will betray him, and yet he loves, and loves me to the end.

The music swells as the Communion line thins.

Holy God, you are love.

Holy God, you are love.

Holy God, you are love.

It is normally a triumphant song, but the throb and beat is the throb and beat of the soldiers coming to take him away. I can feel it beating in my own blood, knowing that I am the one that will strip him bare. I want to say no, to give back the shiny silver of service that I so eagerly received before this all began. But it has already begun, and he has promised to love me ’til the end. 

In the end, it’s the pain that propels me forward. I just want to get this over with.

The priest snuffs the candles with the palms of his hands, and I imagine the dark marks on his palms as he hands me the candle sticks. I walk away quickly with the silver heavy enough to bruise my bare heels once again, my steps on the stone resounding as I retreat.

Next, the stoles, already red with blood. I am handed both and I think, I have stripped him. I have taken his glory for my own. I lay them down over the offering baskets, hidden away, as if I could offer it back to him.

Finally, the white over the altar, all innocence and silk. Crumpled, I receive it, and as I walk away I hear the crash that years before I have only watched—the altar tipped over, defiled. It vibrates through me, this sound, and I almost don’t want to return to see what was once a table of celebration knocked over with my help. 

Still, I return, and watch from a place away, to the side. I want to cry out as the cross is covered in black. As I hear the hammer of stake on wood, my soul screams. But my jaw clenches tight again, the stabs of pain keeping me silent. I cannot open my mouth.

And then, it is over. The priest who so warmly embraced me runs, stripped, from the church, fleeing Gethsemane. We who have served and celebrated sidle away silently.

The muscles in my cheek spasm again as I reach for my husband’s hand. It’s different, I tell him. It’s different when it’s me stripping the altar, when I take the actions myself, betraying him. On other nights like this, I have felt lost. Unsure of where they have taken this man who is everything to me. Unable to return home, we have wandered the city without purpose. Tonight, I feel my complicity. I am not lost. Instead, I want to trail after those who are, haunting them with a warning not to forget, not to fall asleep, not to leave him as I have. As I did. I am living the story—all the pain and the promise—in my own hands and feet.

My jaw spasms, and I stay silent.

This morning, I wake up, and the day is shrouded in fog. I ache all over, my body reflecting what my soul knows to be true. My knees feel pulled out of joint, my neck bearing a yoke of pain.

I stay inside, not wanting to be with the crowd. I know my spasming jaw will keep me silent when they yell out, Crucify Him!

But he has already been betrayed.

Instead, I take more ibuprofen than I should, to numb the pain. And I wait.

I wait because he has promised more, he has promised to love me to the end. I wait because this body of betrayal has the possibility of being a body of glory and wonder.

And it is not over yet.

Not yet.

The First Mention of Love

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

During Easter Vigil at my church, I was invited to share a brief meditation on Genesis 22. The theme of the evening was the ever-building victory of God over sin and death in the history of God’s people. As such, we heard meditations and experienced live performances in a variety of art forms on the Biblical narrative in the Old Testament starting with Genesis 1 and culminating in Ezekiel 37, as we waiting in anticipation for the dawning of Easter morning and the history-splitting revelation of the resurrection of Christ. In a short 5-minute reflection, I shared about God’s first revelation of love, which occurs in this very passage. I hope and pray it speaks to you now as it spoke to me to prepare and share this reflection then. It is still Easter, after all. He is Risen!

Imagine this moment with me.

You have been a pilgrim for the past 25 years. Instead of the stability, safety, normalcy that you had know for the first 75—seventy five—years, you have wandered in lands not your own, among people not your own.  

You’ve heard God promise you big—no, outrageous—things, and you’ve had arguments with Him under the stars. He has spoken, and though it has seemed completely crazy, you have obeyed, leaving everything you knew in order to see God’s will done, His promises fulfilled.

You walked in infertility for two and a half DECADES. Month after month, year after year, you and your wife—who is, by the way, just as old as you—have ridden the rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. Belief, and despair. Over and over again.

And, yes, you doubted God. You took things into your own hands. You forced and manipulated the story—who wouldn’t?—to make life happen. Ishmael. Your first born son.

But God wasn’t done with you. Your stumbling, He took it all in stride. In the face of your faithlessness, He was still faithful.

Sarah conceived.

Isaac, son of your laughter, was born.

It was a time of deep joy, a time for settling in to all that God had given you, stewarding it well, and living into the life He had promised you.

In amongst a people who didn’t know you, you embraced the promise passed down to you through Isaac. You provided for your son, you cared for your wife. You made a home in a foreign land, among people who didn’t speak your language, didn’t worship Yahweh.

You thought your wandering, your crazy days of following God into the unknown were done.

And then, God shows up again.

† † †

It’s in this context, 22 chapters into the book of Genesis, that God calls Abraham’s name. We can feel this story so deeply—the tense journey to mount Moriah, the moment that—if we’re truly honest—turns every parent’s stomach, makes every parent ache to hold their child (no matter how young or old) just a little closer.

Abraham binds his son, what he now believes is his only son after sending Ishmael and Hagar into the wilderness, and places him on the altar. He raises the knife.

And let’s not sanitize this, by the way. Isaac isn’t an infant. He knows what’s going on. Scholars debate an exact age, but Isaac is anywhere between 15 and 25 years old at this point.

The knife is raised, and an angel of the Lord stops Abraham’s hand. In a moment that points forward in time—hundreds and hundreds of years forward—God provides a substitute for the offering, a pure act of grace. Then it is the ram, but soon it will not a son of man to be offered, but the very son of God.

But let’s back up again.

Because there’s a moment before this, a tiny, seemingly unimportant moment, the moment when God comes to Abraham, who has walked through so much, given up so much already, and calls him by name.

Abraham, the one who has muddled through and messed it up, says to God, one more time, Here I am. At more than 100 years old, he says, Yes, God, I’m up for whatever’s next.

And whatever’s next is LOVE.

That’s the moment. Right there.

After 22 chapters, years of stories, this is the very first time the word LOVE is used in the Bible.

Oh, you’ll see it in the English, but the Hebrew underlying those translations is hesed, loving-kindness.

This time, in this encounter, God introduces us to LOVE (aheb) for the first time.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Love isn’t the romantic, flowers and chocolate love that the world sells us. It’s not even love between a man and a woman. It’s the love of father to son, in the context of sacrifice.

What God is showing us, what Abraham and Isaac are participating in, is real love.

Love that gives away the beloved with open hands. Love that offers the one it loves as a sacrifice. Love that is obedient unto death.

The first thing that we hear God the Father saying about Jesus in all four of the Gospels is this: This is my son, whom I love.

If we know Genesis 22, if we know what real love is, we know how this story is going to end.

And this time, it isn’t with a ram, with a life spared and a sacrifice redeemed.

This time, it isn’t about our efforts, our obedience, our faithfulness.

It’s about God’s effort, God’s obedience unto death, God’s faithfulness to us.

And we don’t have to clutch our children close, because God didn’t clutch close His son. He opened His hands and showed us what love really is.

For God so loved the world…

Synchroblog: My Body, My Jerusalem

On March 13, my first book, Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh & Bone, officially launched.

The day before, March 12, marked six months of life for my daughter, and a huge milestone for my own body in terms of continued health and well-being.

But I haven’t written much about that, have I?

Continue reading “Synchroblog: My Body, My Jerusalem”

Don’t Tell Me Sunday’s Coming

The Cross is confusing.

This is what I think as I leave our church’s Maundy Thursday service, the ending abrupt, the people unsure of what to do, when to leave, wondering if they should stand or kneel or stay and pray. Everyone shuffles off quietly, in clumps, embarrassed and unsure.

But don’t we want to be confused?

In a world of easily Googled answers, of the kind of information in our pockets that would have made us super heroes one hundred years ago, don’t we need a little bit of tension? In a world that has lost its wonder, don’t we crave things we don’t understand, things we have no explanation for?


It’s hard to live in the confusion when we’ve been conditioned to seek answers instead of mystery. It’s painful to sit here, on Good Friday, and be present, when we know the end of the story. It’s easy—oh, so easy—to leapfrog over Friday to the triumph of Sunday.

But that isn’t the story that we live in. It isn’t the world we live in.

With hundreds of South Korean teenagers dead in waters that were supposed to bare them to a paradise vacation, with the ache of families being unable to put food on the table, with the empty clanging of our need for attention and approval (quick, post another Instagram picture of my dinner!), with the searing, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that the world isn’t as it should be, with the gnawing doubts that our faith might not sustain, that what we’ve believed might just be false, we find ourselves confused, hurting, wounded and wondering.

It’s no surprise we want to flip to the end, to find out if it will all work out, if our doubts were worth it, our groaned prayers answered, our tears wiped away. We want resolution now, because the now we live in bleeds and moans and drives us, literally, to distraction.

But here’s the thing—I won’t go to a movie if I know the ending. I won’t pick up a book if someone’s already told me the way the story wraps up. There’s nothing in it for me any more, no hope of being surprised, no sense to movement toward something unknown, no journey to go on. Instead it’s just an excruciating turning of pages, a lifeless waiting until the inevitable has happened. I hate spoilers.

Does that hold true for the larger stories of our culture, our world, the stories we know the ending to, the historical realities that get remade into big picture narratives? Sometimes, and depends—because in those cases I’m looking for something other than a retelling of a tale I already know, a hackneyed remake without imagination that doesn’t change what I know about the story in any way. Instead, I’ll engage in those stories when I know the storyteller wants something more for me, her audience, wants to show me a way that the spoilers get redeemed, remade into something that surprises or startles me awake.

And, really, I’m wanting to see the way the climax, not the ending, changes everything.

It’s the climax that moves us. We hold our breath when the ship hits the iceberg, watching wide-eyed as each person reacts differently, each from their own fears and hopes moving toward life or toward death. It’s the way that Lincoln looks, moments before giving that iconic speech, his face haggard, his life’s work gripped tightly in his hands, that makes us ask the question of what we’d do in the same situation—would we give in to the pressures around us or stand for what we believe to be right? It’s the climax that makes us turn toward ourselves, to make the story our own, to test the substance of our own hearts and choose, when faced with the story told from a slightly different angle, to live differently, more compassionately, more fully as the image-bearers we were made to be.

And that is the story that we’re living, too.

The story we’re living, whether we believe in God or not, is a story of history split in two by the events of Good Friday. In most of the world today, time is marked by the Cross, whether we know it or not. If you, without thinking, tell me that the year we’re living in is 2014, you are being shaped by the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. The whole of time pivoting on these crucial days, why, oh why would we rush through them? Why would we rush through Peter’s betrayal, when we find in it our own willingness to choose ourselves over Christ? Why would we rush through the pain of the thorns, when we feel in that agony the love of the One who chooses us in the midst of mind-boggling torture?

Perhaps we rush through it because we don’t want to see ourselves, to make that turn toward our own hearts, to recognize the doubts and fears and self-rejection lurking there. Perhaps we rush through because we’ve been conditioned to seek the quick answers, to plaster the story we already know over the story we’re actually living.

Because we are living a different story than we were last year. I know I am. I’m a year older, yes, and in that year I’ve lived through longing and fulfillment, questions and grief, a book written and a baby conceived. During this past year I’ve changed in ways I know, and in ways I don’t. I come to the story of Holy Week as one who has never walked through this story ever before. I may have the same bone structure, but I have new cells, new hair, and a new set of experiences that have shaped my soul into something new.

We have a great Storyteller, and that Storyteller isn’t apt to give us all the answers right away. I live through the narrative of Holy Week each year not because I’m simply reliving a story I already know, but because I’m seeing it from a different angle, living the climax differently, coming awake to new things within myself, seeing Christ anew, feeling the contours of my doubts and confusions in a new way, learning myself and my God more intimately, more truly, more immediately to where I am today. I know the end of the story, yes, and it is glorious, but here and now is where I need to be as God molds me, changes me, awakes me more fully.

So here’s my request, for myself and perhaps for you, this Good Friday, this dark day when we come to the Great Story anew, when we see the nails and feel the pain, when there is darkness over the land and mothers weep for their sons. When hope seems lost and my doubts grow large. Let me sit in this tension, let me feel the story again for the first time. No spoilers, please. Don’t tell me Sunday’s coming.


(Image Source: Jan Richardson Images, “According to the Burial Custom”, all rights reserved,

Practicing Resurrection through Eyes of the Heart

Awhile back, I hosted a dear friend and fellow spiritual director, Christine Valters Paintner, of Abbey of the Arts on the Anam Cara blog. Her book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, was published in 2013 and I asked Christine to share the ways that developing “eyes of the heart” help us live into the season of Easter. Below, Christine shares from her heart. I know you’ll enjoy the support and wisdom Christine offers as much as I do.

• • •

The season of Easter spans 50 days of celebrating the resurrection and culminating in Pentecost.  Yet, for many of us, Easter Sunday comes and goes and we forget this call to practice resurrection in an ongoing way.  We, perhaps, aren’t sure how to bring resurrection into daily life.

The stories we hear during the Easter season highlight the resurrected life of the body – Thomas touching Jesus’ physical wounds, the nets being cast out from the boat to draw in an abundance of food, the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus with Jesus and breaking bread with him.  In this last story we read that their “eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”

When Jesus returns in resurrected form, he is fully embodied, yet hard for us to recognize.  The disciples do not expect their dear friend to be among them again and so they miss this truth with their limited vision.

To me, this speaks of an invitation to see the world in a different way.  Practicing resurrection is, in part, about becoming aware of how we see the world.  When we rush from thing to thing, never pausing, never allowing space, we see only what we expect to find.  We see to grasp at the information we need. We see the stereotypes embedded in our minds. We miss the opportunity to see beyond what we want. We walk by a thousand ordinary revelations in our busyness and preoccupation.

We find a similar emphasis on vision in the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration.  The burning light that once appeared to Moses in the bush now radiates from Jesus himself: “His face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). For the ancient writer Gregory Palamas, it was the disciples who changed at the Transfiguration, not Christ. Christ was transfigured “not by the addition of something he was not, but by the manifestation to his disciples of what he really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see.” Because their perception grew sharper, they were able to behold Christ as he truly is.

Consider celebrating resurrection this Easter season with a commitment to deeper vision.  This kind of seeing takes time.  We have to slow down and wait.  We have to release wanting to see something in particular, so that we can be open to what is being offered in the moment. This is the heart of contemplation – to see what really is, rather than what we would expect.

For me, the creative practice of photography can be a powerful doorway into transformed seeing.  When we open ourselves to receiving photos, rather than taking them, we are offered a gift.  By bringing the camera to the eye and allowing an encounter with the holy to open our hearts, we might be transformed.

It can be any kind of camera.  Look through the lens and imagine that it is a portal to a new way of seeing. Let the focus of the frame bring your gaze to the quality of light in this moment or the vibrancy of colors. Even five minutes can shift your gaze to a deepened quality of attentiveness.  No need to capture everything you see, but simply an invitation to breathe in the beauty of this moment.

Let yourself be willing to see the world differently, so that what others miss in the rush of life, becomes transfigured through your openness and intention. Practicing resurrection means walking along the road and paying close attention, making space to receive the gift of bread, the nourishment of conversation, and a vision of the sacred.



Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of 15 books on art and monasticism, including, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.