Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Holy Days

Maundy Thursday

Subversive Contemplation

April 1, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary

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In both the story of the first Passover and the story of Jesus’ sharing this meal with his friends, we are invited both to awareness of the urgency of the moment and to the kairos-time God makes present even, and sometimes especially, in our tribulation.



Spirituality & Psychology

The Urgency of Slowing Down

Kazu Haga

Waging Nonviolence: People Powered News and Analysis

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Spirituality & Psychology

Change Comes from the Inside

Richard Rohr

Canter for Action and Contemplation

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What is the relationship you see between addressing injustices and grounding in prayer?


This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.—Exodus 12:11
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.—John 13:33

True contemplation is the most subversive of activities because it undercuts the one thing that normally refuses to give way­­–our natural individualism and narcissism. —Richard Rohr

Maundy Thursday has long been my favorite day of Holy Week. The liturgy has an arc that compels me deeply—from the passover meal to the foot washing to the stripping of the altar and departure in silence. It speaks to the fullness of this week with all it contains.

I’ve always wanted to linger in this liturgy.

What strikes me this year is that the passover meal, both the original observance and the night Jesus observed it with his friends—occurs in a rush. “You shall eat it hurriedly,” the first observers heard from our Lord. And Jesus, even as he pauses to wash the feet of his beloved friends, cautions them—“I am with you only a little longer.” In other words, time is running out.

No one likes to be rushed. We don’t much care for hurry in the church. It goes against our contemplative grain. And we’re right not to like rush, for the most part.

And yet, and yet…

There are times for urgency. Times when we must comprehend what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.”

We are, once more, in such a moment. With racism. With gun violence. With the disintegration of civil discourse.

Our call is not to be frantic or de-centered. But it is, rather, to understand that something is at stake—that lives are at stake. And so our attention is needed, our action is needed now. We do not have the luxury of leisure, of taking things slowly. God has need of us in this hour.

We are in times that require us to embrace the urgency of now.

What’s instructive in that urgency, however, is to note from the first Passover and the Passover Jesus shared with his friends— in both instances, they still took time to share a meal—and not just any meal, but a meal that took time to prepare, following very specific instructions. And, too, Jesus still took time to take his towel, bend down, and wash the feet of each disciple gathered at table with him.

Richard Rohr says, “True contemplation is the most subversive of activities because it undercuts the one thing that normally refuses to give way­­–our natural individualism and narcissism.”

Acts of contemplation, anchored in everyday moments like preparing and sharing meal, washing our bodies, planting seeds in the ground, sitting on the porch and hearing stories from our elders—far from being counter to the urgency of now, ground and fuel our capacity to do justice.

Tending to the urgency does not require anxiously abandoning our grounding in the present moment. Rather, the invitation is to tend the urgency from the grounding of our everyday activities…our eating, our washing, our caring for one another.

This is the way it is in the fray of the needs of our world. The urgent is always with us. We must respond to it, even as we share our most sacred meal, even as we tenderly care for one another, bent down, holding dirty feet. We must hold both beauty and need together in every moment.

To live in the world while grounded in the Spirit, we must learn to hold what needs urgent attention still in a space grounded in non-rush. Tearing around with a frantic disposition does not get the hungry fed, the naked clothed, or the oppressed set free. Neither, however, does gradualism.

The Lord said to eat the Passover meal hurriedly—he did not say to forgo it. Jesus understood he had things to do—and with some urgency, during the feast of the Passover. He did not, however, let that awareness stop him from tying a towel to his cincture, bending down, washing the feet of each disciple. Foot washing takes some time—to pour the water, to lift each foot, holding it while you carefully wash it and then set it down gently to pat it dry.

In our lives, particularly when we become anxious, it is easy to convince ourselves that we must tend the urgent by foregoing contemplative practice—whether that practice be savoring a meal or washing someone’s feet or holding one who is weeping.

On the other hand, we are hurried about many things—just not the right things. We hurry to distract ourselves, to fill our lives with busy-ness from which we imagine we derive our worth.

Learning to hold God’s priorities—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the oppressed—with a sense of urgency—like the Israelites eating the first Passover meal—while still grounding even that urgency in the contemplation of taking each bite, of looking at the faces of our beloved ones in the candlelight—this is the way of Jesus.

Such grounding in the present moment subverts the status quo and all its temptations. Such grounding propels us toward the urgency of now with our feet planting firmly on the ground, our eyes open, our hearts illumined.

May we practice subversive contemplation in the face of our urgent now.