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.