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Folded Time: Poems for Maundy Thursday

'You will know every shade of my suffering’ -George MacDonald

Folded Time

The liturgical calendar remains an invitation to Christians throughout history, one that welcomes the soul to come and once again participate in the narratives we hold dear.

Holy Week is not a mere ‘memorial device,’ as James K.A. Smith puts it, but instead a ‘folding of time’ where we are actually encountering and experiencing the scared realities of the past.

Smith continues, ‘When, in a Tenebrae service on Good Friday, candles are extinguished with each of Christ’s last words from the cross and the shadows begin too swallow us, we are not invited to merely remember a ‘historical event’. We are invited to inhabit time in such a way that we are there and then.’

Modernity forces us to think in flat, unidirectional and linear time, in which we march farther and farther away from the unreachable past and towards ‘progress’. Yet Smith argues that Christian tradition has long held a different view of temporality. This is one in which the sacred is continually breaking into our history, where we are communing with God’s people across the ages, and it is characterised by the ‘immediacy of Christ to every generation’.

A Few Poems for Maundy Thursday

As we step into the throes of Holy Week, here are a few poems and paintings to stimulate your contemplation on the passion narrative— one with quite a few twists and turns.

Maundy Thursday comprises a sequence of poignant scenes, including the Last Supper, the inauguration of the Eucharist, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, the garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal. May moving through these poems, preferably by reading slowly and out loud, help you savour the bread and wine that now means ‘all of Him—is mixed with all of us’. May it guide you to understand the palpable pressure with Jesus in the garden that ‘pushed the densest word of all, abba’. Christ brutally understands our tensions and aches, as George MacDonald says, ‘You will know every shade of my suffering’.

The Living Bread by Saint Ephraim of Syria (373)

His body wholly mixed

with these our bodies, and His pure

blood poured generously out

to fill our veins, His voice

now pulses in our ears,

and look! His lighted vision

pools within our eyes. All of Him—

is mixed with all of us—compassionate communion.

And asHe loves His church His body

utterly, so He gives

it more than bread, more even

than bread from heaven

but gives His own, His

living Bread for her to eat.

Wheat, olive, and the grape—

these three— serve Your mystic union

in threefold manner

Your bread became our strength,

Your wine our consolation.

Our faces were renewed,

illumined by the grace and

blessing of Your holy oil. For all

of this and more, Your body—

saved your abasement—

now unites in true thanksgiving

and Death— the insatiable lion

who consumed us all— by You alone

its appetite was sated, by You alone

its hold has burst, and we

rise strengthened, comforted, and luminous.

Gethsemane by Rowan Williams

Who said that trees grow easily

compared with us? What if the bright

bare load that pushes down on them

insisted that they spread and bowed

and pleated back on themselves and cracked

and hunched? Light dropping like a palm

levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

Across the valley are the other witnesses

of two millennia, the broad stones

packed by the hand of God, bristling

with little messages to fill the cracks.

As the light falls and flattens what grows

on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,

there is room to say something, quick and tight.

Into the trees' clefts, then, do we push

our folded words, thick as thumbs?

somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice

has been before us, pushed the densest word

of all, abba, and left it to be collected by

whoever happens to be passing, bent down

the same way by the hot unreadable palms.


Dispersed throughout are pictures from around Oxford that captured the colouring I imagine on Maundy Thursday. Additionally, the artwork comes from the Visual Commentary on Scripture project by King’s College London, specifically The Last Supper and Agony in the Garden collections. Many of the poems were found in Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics by Scott Cairns or in Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite. Ruminations on time came from How to Inhabit Time by James K.A. Smith.

Drinking in the oddities and beauties around me.





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