Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

1. Certain Death
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible—often without pause to think what it is they might be disowning. There is, however, an assertion of the Bible that is difficult to deny. Written on most pages, in different ways, is the bad news that precedes the good news we have in Christ Jesus. This underpinning claim is that the world is broken, and that humankind is at the heart of this problem.

We readily believe this biblical claim because it is evident all around us. Our newspapers, news channels and social media are filled with enough evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that something is wrong with this world. Organised crime, sexual violence, war, and environmental damage, to name just four, cover a multitude of sins.

Early in Genesis we read this:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16–17, NIV

Surely, on this basis, we now know what to expect if Adam should ignore God? This is storytelling at its bluntest: “you will certainly die” says God to Adam.

We have all seen TV dramas where what happens next is so obviously set-up, we don’t feel the need to watch the next couple of minutes. In the UK this is embodied in the hospital drama Casualty. The opening scene might have an elderly couple whose car breaks down close to a bend in a very narrow country lane. They get out of their vehicle to see what they can do. The camera cuts to a group of young people in a car. They are acting boisterously with more than a hint that alcohol, as well as the passengers, are impairing the driver. On this limited evidence we know what happens next.

In Genesis when Eve and Adam eat the fruit, they don’t drop down dead—this is no poisonous apricot. Nor is God’s judgement an instantaneous bolt of lightning from heaven. Rather, Genesis 3 is a slow unfolding car crash, far worse than two people poisoned or fried by lightening.

2. Naked Wisdom
Some people struggle with the apparent arbitrary nature of God’s command to Adam and Eve.

. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:17, NIV

But this is the heart of the story. Captured in this act of eating a singular specific fruit, is our failure to recognise the creaturely need for instruction from the creator. To ignore God’s instruction is a denial that we are creatures, and a choice to break the created order.

Both biblical wisdom and our everyday experience testify that we are our own worst enemies. John Donne puts it well:

Nothing but man of all envenomed things,
     doth work upon itself, with inborn stings.
John Donne

In Genesis 3 we notice that the snake craftily nudges Adam and Eve:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Genesis 3:3, NIV

The added emphasis on touch seems to exaggerate the sense arbitrariness and invites another sense. They have seen this fruit, they know they should not taste it, and now the serpent suggests even touching it is out of the question. And yet the snake makes a good point:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5, NIV

There is nothing in this story to suggest that either Adam or Eve are more at fault. The women sins by her words, the man by his silence. But to even think about the blame game is a mistake. They fall into temptation as one, just as they are united in one flesh in Genesis 2. They fall as one, and this joint act sows the seed of future disunity.

They acted unwisely at the most fundamental of levels—by not fearing God. Where has their earthly wisdom got them? The first fruit of their action is the irreversible road to perceive right and wrong for themselves rather than looking to God. They now question everything, and most fundamentally they know shame. They know they have betrayed the one that made their bodies, and that they are naked before him.

3. Poetic Justice
Death is now inevitable as there will be no opportunity to eat of the tree of life. The good of creation—captured in the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2—has been marred. Genesis 3 captures the consequences in poetry. It is laid out in short lines in the NIV, and other most modern translations, to show this form. But why poetry? Its form highlights the importance of these verses. The consequences started with the first humans, but they are still with us today.

Hebrew poetry testifies to divine order even amid disorder. Some of the most difficult parts of the First Testament are poetry. The consequences of the fall are undoubtedly negative, but they are part of bigger story guided by a God of order.

The poetic justice is that Eve labours to bear children and Adam labours to grow food. Life is a struggle in this broken creation. And we know all of this is worked out in a morass of complexity to this day, and ironically amid a divisive web of irreconcilably different interpretations.

4. East of Eden
The first couple were made from dust—with no access to the tree of life, to dust they will return. Rather oddly, Adam only names his wife as Eve after the fall. Might it be that they were so united in idyllic Eden that they went by a single name? In any case Adam and Eve will both become adamah, or earth, on their death.

Now East of Eden, we can only guess how much they may have looked hopefully West, longing to go back to the garden and to be with God. In Near-Eastern and European culture the West has often been looked to in hope—the place where the sun sets as the place of blessing. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth will know the haunting appeal of the Undying Lands:

But islands lie behind the Sun,
That I shall raise ere all is done.
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Bilbo’s Last Song, JRR Tolkien

The problem is that there is no way back. Rather than the wide ocean of Tolkien’s fiction, Adam and Eve are thwarted by cherubim and a flaming sword. The way to God is shut.

And yet for us, on this Earth, the fate of the snake offers us hope:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15, NIV

Later theology sees this as the conflict between Church and the evil one. Genesis 3 might be the bad news. But this self-evident broken world is a constant reminder of the one who will redeem it, and us, by destroying evil, sin and death. It also provides the starting point for conversation with those who hastily dismiss the Bible—for they know the reality of the bad news, and this is the start of the road to the quiet and rest of the good news.

Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms

Generative Possibility
Nick Cave’s album, Seven Psalms, was released on the 17th June 2022. I discovered this collection because of the title’s likely nod to the Penitential, or Seven, Psalms. This post is a review of Cave’s short album, but one with a difference. By considering seven features—or signs—of the biblical psalms I address the question of how this recent work relates to the ancient Psalter. Whatever else might be said of the Book of Psalms, its generative potential cannot be denied. And however near, or far, Cave’s lyrics might be from ancient Israel it is psalmody that lies behind them. The simple cover of the work in question provides further insight into the way in which the Psalter has worked here. For a small simple cross is the singular graphic feature. These songs are to be understood as a Christian reception of the Psalms. When we hear the address ‘Lord’, it is presumably both Yahweh and Christ that are in mind. Doubtless like the biblical psalmists, Cave’s own context also supplies generative direction. From what I know of Nick Cave’s recent life he has experienced pain as acute as that known by the ancient poets. This is not, however, the place for biography as the goal here is not explanation. I aim to point, with Cave’s creation, to the Psalms and thence to the one whose breath generated them.

Poetic Nature
Cave’s album comprises seven short psalms or responses to the Psalms. In addition, an eighth much longer track—some eleven minutes, or so—captures the music and refrains of the seven but omits Cave’s poetic voiceovers. Probably inadvertently this one-plus-eight form alludes to the tension between psalms as single entities and the Psalter as a whole. More certain is that Cave’s words are to be seen as poems. Much modern music is poetry, with Dylan and Cohen providing ample evidence for such a claim. Here, Cave has made poetic intent unambiguous by using spoken word, rather than lyrics, along with the music. A key feature of Cave’s Seven Psalms is the centrality of figurative language. Much of the metaphor and imagery is biblical and connects with its source organically. Some is deliberately in tension with its origin. For example, whereas Psalm 84 celebrates that:

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3, NIV

By contrast, in Cave’s sixth psalm—Such Things Should Never Happen—the baby sparrow dies, and the swallow only finds a nest after experiencing grief. Troubling yes, but an honest nod to the perplexities of theodicy and death amid the life of faith.

A third group of metaphors and images beg the question of whether Cave tries too hard with his figurative language. I will leave the listener to judge for themselves, but I found that after some initial jars these softened with repetition and reflection.

Terseness
The terseness of Hebrew poetry is generally acknowledged as part of its very nature. Translators have had to wrestle for some two thousand years with the degree to which this can and should be preserved. All seven songs here are terse and have a form like the songs to which to which they point. More specifically each of them can be broken into two or three strophes, each comprising four lines. They also can be understood as following another common feature of biblical poetry in that each strophe comprises two bicola with the second cola (B) furthering the first (A) in a diversity of ways. Here is an example from I Have Trembled My Way Deep:

A:    I have trembled my way deep into surrender.
B:    I have stretched my aching body across the world.

Note how the second cola enriches and furthers the first and the two together are more than the sum of the two parts. In this specific example we also see how poetic terseness provides openness and polyvalence. This bicola, like so much biblical psalmody, asks us ‘who is saying these words?’. The first psalm of this cycle—How Long Have I Waited—asks another perennial question from the psalms, ‘how long?’. Such repetitive motifs are actualised by their terseness and intertextuality. They are in a sense world-defining—tangibly demonstrating Walter Brueggemann’s idea that the biblical text is the word that redescribes the world.

Prayerful reflection
Another frequent refrain of the Psalter is the cry ‘have mercy on me?’. And this is the title of Cave’s second psalm. This confession of sin is either hyperbole on Cave’s lips or he is writing of the sins of a nation or a dictator. Or perhaps the words reflect our common guilt as fallen humanity. Here a mirror is held up to Psalm 137 as the psalmist confesses that they have ‘dashed the new-born upon the rocks’. In this confession, and throughout, Cave is continually and prayerfully reflective which is surely the raison d’être of the Psalter. The beauty of psalm-based reflection is for all the clarity there is also a huge measure of open intertextual allusion and word play.

Faithful Questioning
Of course, questioning the apparent injustice of the created order does not make songs into psalms nor an album into a Psalter. The stance of the psalmist is also key. These seven songs make this extra step in that the questioning apparently arises from faith and trust. We have already noted that the one addressed is Lord. There is also an underlying assumption that the questioned Lord will answer, if not now at some later date. These songs are a cry from the depths like Psalm 130. This is no pitiful unanswered cry of someone drowning but rather a call to one whose saving hand has been glimpsed reaching out. Psalm 42’s ‘deep calls to deep’ in I Come Alone to You and the prayer, ‘pierce me deep’ in I Have Trembled My Way Deep reveal a rich relationship in a play of words where the problem is transmuted into a solution as is so often experienced in earnest prayer.

Pilgrim Songs
Like the ancient Psalter these songs provide overall a firm, but at times an inchoate, glimpse into the journey of faith. These songs are rich with the motifs of pilgrimage. The words ‘way’ and ‘wandered’ are found in the titles of two of the songs. This is someone who knows they have yet to find their home:

I have wandered all my unending days.
Shuttered your shining aspect in the stars.
Hidden alleys and tramp broken highways.
With little in my pockets but my prayers.
Nick Cave, I Have Wandered All My Unending Days

Perhaps here the pocketed prayers are the biblical psalms? Like the richness of the Psalms, we should note that Cave’s responses are not only words of lament and introspection, but they are also songs of praise like the Pilgrim Psalms of the Psalter:

Splendour, Lord, oh glorious splendour.
The world explodes amazing at your hand.
Oh glory, Lord, oh splendouring wonder.
March together across this loud and wild land.
Nick Cave, Splendour, Glorious Splendour

Expectancy
Throughout the seven songs there is the attitude of the biblical psalmist, a faith seeking understanding. Questioning is normal, or even required, as we make our way through the life of faith. Whilst the journey is important it can only make sense when the goal is something understood. This comes across in Cave’s collection most clearly in the refrain to I Have Wandered All My Unending Days: ‘There is a mansion in the sky’. This might be an intentional reference to the song by The Brian Jamestown Massacre of the same name. Both Cave’s work and that of The Brain Jamestown Massacre refer to the Johannine Jesus’ claim that:

My Father’s house has many rooms . . .
John 14:2a, NIV

This goal of our pilgrim wandering helps cultivate the psalmist’s expectation which turns to an attitude of trust. Such a way of reading the life of faith helps us pray the psalms aright, as well as generate our own echoes of this school of prayer. I hope I have heard the Seven Psalms aright and Cave and I share the same road.

Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

References
1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

The Scorpion: Jesus in the Wilderness

This post is inspired by The Scorpion, one of Stanley Spencer’s Christ in the Wilderness series. Here the painting is not a replacement for the Bible but rather a means to a fresh perspective on some aspects of Jesus preparing for his ministry. Given recent world events we don’t need to work hard to remember that all that we have here and now is always prone to becoming a wilderness. The riches of the gospel and our relationship with the living God are immense but the fullness of what Christ has done awaits the age to come.

The Scorpion is in some ways the most difficult of Spencer’s series as it prefigures the disturbing trajectory of the rest of Jesus’ life. For here we perceive a wilderness experience that starts in the literal wilderness and continues through a remarkable, yet short, ministry to Gethsemane and then the Cross.

The Scorpion points to a small number of biblical texts. In Luke 10:18–19 we read:

He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Luke 10:18–19, NIVUK

Spencer’s painting portrays a stark and empty place, but it is nevertheless a place where God’s creation can be found. Here creation is experienced as a scorpion rather than the more prosaic daisies in Consider the Lilies (another of the unfinished series of eight paintings).

The people of Jesus’ day already knew all too well that the wilderness was a place of scorpions and snakes. As it says in Deuteronomy:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.
Deuteronomy 8:15, NIVUK

Scorpions are only mentioned twice in the Gospels. Both times by Luke. But they are mentioned occasionally outside the gospels. Sometimes they are literal and sometimes metaphorical. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, they are a metaphor for God’s rebellious people:

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.
Ezekiel 2:6, NIVUK

In Ezekiel the scorpions are first the people of God who would not listen to the prophet. The verse can also be understood as a prelude to Jesus, the Son of Man who came to minister to all mankind. Jesus holds the rebellious peoples of this world in hands just as certainly as he holds a scorpion in this painting.

Jesus in the quiet wilderness escapes people as he focuses for 40 days on his future ministry. He has taken leave of the figurative scorpions but finds the literal ones that nip and sting so painfully. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is bitter-sweet. Here he finds a closeness to his Father but a revelation of a difficult path yet to be trod. He encounters creation, from the sweetness of the flowers of the field to the bitterness of the stinging scorpion.

Jesus’ ministry would also be bitter-sweet—a ministry to the sick, the demon possessed, the lost and yet rejection by a rebellious people. Jesus came into a world that is a perpetual night despite the sun’s best efforts. He came into the world because it is the night.

The second of two gospel passages that mention scorpions is also found in Luke just one chapter on from the first:

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Luke 11:11–13, NIVUK

Surely a rhetorical question if ever there was one? Jesus’ point in Luke is that God will not give us something bad when we ask for something good. At first sight literal food seems to be the focus and it does follow on from the Lord’s prayer with its talk of daily bread. But then fish versus snake, and egg versus scorpion, dissolve into a promise of the gift of Holy Spirit.

In Luke 11 there can only be one answer as to whether God will give us an egg or a scorpion. But this is perhaps not the case in Jesus’ wilderness experience. There he is, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he has been sent not one but two scorpions. Perhaps he has even been stung? His hands look swollen.

Why would God the Father give Jesus a scorpion in his hour, or 960 hours, of need? Well, whatever actually happened in the desert is perhaps not Spencer’s only concern here. He probably has an eye on Gethsemane and the night when Jesus was betrayed. In that Garden Jesus knew that the ministry that had been discerned three years earlier in the wilderness was coming to its painful conclusion. His prayer crystallises the bittersweetness of the Son of Man’s actions for us:

‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
Luke 22:42, NIVUK

It is probably no coincidence that Jesus’ hands are cupped in the same manner that many receive communion wafers to this day—this is exactly how Stanley Spencer would have received it in his early years, in the army in Macedonia and in his later life in his beloved Cookham. For Christ in the painting, and the faithful communicant, this is a gesture of utter dependence on God. This is an expectant surrender and waiting for His gift of grace. Yet, Jesus received a scorpion that we might receive his body.

Whether or not Jesus’ hands are swollen by a scorpion’s sting—a foretaste of the literal pains of ministry to come—they look distinctive. It’s not that Spencer can’t paint hands it’s that he is making a point. Perhaps they are meant to look like a loaf of challah bread. Challah bread is a type of offering bread. Perhaps Spencer is reminding us that Jesus is the bread of life. Our cry to God gives us Jesus the bread of life who bore a scorpion for us.

For Spencer Jesus is going through the acutest form of the Dark Night of the Soul, a term for spiritual angst coined by St John of the Cross, the 16th Century Spanish mystic. We—that is me and most readers of this blog—are more likely to experience a milder form amidst all our numbing distractions, something that Douglas Adams referred to as The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul. Douglas Adams is ridiculing serious spirituality and yet there’s a sting in the tail when we remember what Jesus experienced for us and what some Christians elsewhere on the world experience for the sake of the gospel.

The experience of a scorpion and the sting of death was always going to be where Jesus’ ministry led. He probably discerned this as he prepared in those forty days. He certainly knew the time was close in Gethsemane. How else can the night brought on by humanity’s rebellion be dealt with? Jesus would know darkness that we might know light. Jesus would taste the sting of death that we might have life.

Darkness and night are, of course, a constant feature of the Passion. Just after Judas leaves the Last Supper we read:

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
John 13:30, NIVUK

Jesus’ trial was undertaken at night. In the crucifixion itself we have night intruding into the day:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
Mark 15:33-34

Finally at the resurrection the darkness and the night end:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
John 20:1, NIVUK

 Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus on the cross, in accepting a scorpion, points to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another twentieth century work of art can help us perceive this remarkable gift. Here are the last verses of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable poem Station Isaland XI:

And from these two a third current proceeds
Which neither of these two, I know, precedes
Although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.

Further Reflection

Stephen Cottrell (2012), Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting On The Paintings By Stanley Spencer, SPCK Publishing.

A Review: Rachel Mann’s ‘Spectres of God’

Rachel Mann, Spectres of God: Theological Notes for an Age of Ghosts, My Theology, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2021

Rachel Mann writes as poet-priest in a short book which is one of fifteen in the new ‘My Theology’ series. These books can be read in a single sitting but might be better imbibed more slowly. Each of the fifteen authors presents their distinctive Christian journey and theological priorities. It might be tempting to pick the one from the fifteen closest to our own experience and church tradition. For me this would, I suspect, be Alister McGrath’s contribution which I have yet to read. I hoped to be stretched by Mann’s contribution.

Readers who know Mann will anticipate a complex journey providing fresh perspectives on the well-trodden path of the Great Tradition. They will also expect poetic and literary verve. Such readers will not be disappointed.

This reader was initially uncomfortable with the opening metaphor of spectres of God. This image pervades—dare I say haunts—every page of the book. My discomfort was rapidly dispelled, and it was soon clear that the metaphor provides an array of fresh vantage points. In short, Mann successfully illuminates our contemporary intellectual zeitgeist along with its attendant theological and cultural baggage.

Spectres of God has at its centre three chapters: 1. The Spectre of the Body, 2. The Spectre of Love and 3. The Spectre of Time. These are helpfully framed by a shorter Introduction and a Postscript. An Appendix points to numerous literary and theological companions that Mann has encountered on her journey.

The first spectre is the idealised body. This is unpacked and explained in a dialogical manner which the whole book employs. Mann explores how various types of idealised body are eclipsed by the mystery of Christ’s body. Central to this mystery is the resurrected perfect body par excellence that still bears the traumatic punctures of crucifixion.

The spectre of Love—deliberately capitalised—is that ideal love which is tantalisingly ever before us in this life. Again we have a pointer to mystery. The second chapter ends with love and body intertwined preparing us for the third of Mann’s ghostly transcendentals, time. The future is sketched as ‘layers of hauntology’. What Mann designates as the Third Day provides the teleological goal which can make sense of the experiences of living life in a perpetual night.

The spirit of these three chapters reminded me of a poetic vision from a very different perspective. Seamus Heaney in his Station Island XI grapples with his own spectres of God:

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Because it is the night, we should welcome Mann’s pointer to the mystery of how in an apparently disenchanted culture the spectres of God are all around us.

 

 

Jesus and the Holy Innocents

Readings: Psalm 123; Mark 10:13–16; Matthew 2:1–20.

The Magi: Pursuing Wisdom
We don’t know much about the Magi. There are lots of theories and ideas— snippets of both fact and fiction. There may, or may not, have been three Wise Men—three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh do not necessarily imply three Magi. They were probably part of a social elite of scholars. Although their field of expertise would have ranged from the wisdom of philosophy, through the physics of astronomy to something akin to astrology. They were doing the same basic task as the wise sages of Israel who left us with the Books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and ideas found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the First Testament.

The difference, of course, was they were not followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That didn’t deter God from dealing with them by revelations in the heavens and in a dream. The tribute from foreign kings that they carried to Jesus is the smallest foretaste of the honour that will be paid to this same Jesus as God’s plans are fulfilled Psalm 2 hints at these and includes these words:

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Psalm 2:10–11, NIVUK

Like so many Bible narratives we must be cautious not to read too much into a text that seems intent on hiding many of the things we’d like to know. But with some certainty, both background knowledge about the Magi and what they do in this story indicates that they are pursuing wisdom. Following a star in a way that mashed astronomy and astrology, interpreting dreams in the quest for revelation.

The same God who inspired and spoke to the Magi would have us be wise. But the foundation of our pursuit of wisdom is the baby they first sought. We have a fuller revelation of Jesus Christ, the divine Logos, wisdom personified. Whatever we think of New Year’s resolutions we’d be wise to make Jesus Christ our foundation for 2022.

Herod: Pursuing Power
Herod, the so-called Great, is the villain of the piece. He provides an echo of the evil Pharaoh in the Exodus story who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys as the most callous of pre-emptive strikes to weaken a slave work force so they could not rebel. Like Pharaoh, Herod appears to balk at nothing in order to cling to power. He, like Pharaoh, was also obsessed with massive building projects, including renovating the temple in Jerusalem.

Though brought up a Jew, his father was an Edomite. He was happy to have power by colluding with the Romans. His singular concern in Matthew 2 is remaining a puppet ruler. His horrific decree to kill all male Jews, two-year old and under, is the bluntest and most unsavoury of pragmatic methods to remove a future king that might topple him from power. Such a callous act has all the hallmarks of the extremes that men—and they are usually men—will go to keep their power.

Our passage does not have a definitive answer to the horror that Herod unleashes. But it does relativise him brilliantly. Whilst men do everything to cling to power time moves inexorably on, as it does for us all. Our passage opened with Herod in power:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, . . .
Matthew 2:1, NIVUK

But we read at the close of the passage:

After Herod died, . . .
Matthew 2:19, NIVUK

This dark episode makes the gospel shine even brighter and it reminds us that the Christmas story cannot be buried in sentimentality. This is a story of life in the face of death.

Joseph: Pursuing Obedience
The Bible says very little about Joseph. Nevertheless, he is absolutely central to this story. Unlike Herod’s singlemindedness, Joseph’s focus has the best of motivations: obedience to God. Joseph simply does what he is instructed to do by God. Through three dreams, and on two occasion, he ‘up-sticks’ and moves with Mary and Jesus. First the holy family move to Egypt as refugees fleeing murderous persecution. Some two years, or so, later they journey to Nazareth where Jesus then grew up.

Joseph’s obedience was not a slow one. There was no trying and testing other options. The story makes it very clear that Joseph acted as quickly as he possibly could to get Jesus out of harm’s way:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
Matthew 2:13, NIVUK

We know far more about Herod than Joseph but the quiet good life of obedience to God is better in eternity than celebrity or political power ill-used for personal gain. George Eliot, in her novel Middlemarch, puts it like this:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Eliot is reflecting on Enlightenment progress, but in God’s plans Joseph was instrumental for the even better reasons of faith, trust and obedience.

Where might faith, trust and obedience take us in 2022? We don’t know. Our unhistoric acts—in faith, trust and obedience—not only prevent things going ill but in God’s hands they can serve his purposes—the building of a kingdom not of human progress but God’s design in eternity. To quote a more dubious source than George Eliot:

“What we do in life echoes in eternity”.

Jesus and the Holy Innocents: Utter Dependence
So much for the Magi, Herod and Joseph, for not all the players in this story are active. Passive at the centre of this narrative is Jesus who can do nothing. He is humanly utterly dependent upon Mary and Joseph. This reality of Incarnation is captured acutely in Luci Shaw’s remarkable poem titled Kenosis. Note the title is a profoundly theological concept whilst the poem opens this in fully human fleshly terms:

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.

Poem: Kenosis by Luci Shaw
in Harvesting Fog (Pinyon Publishing, 2010) page 53

The other Jewish baby boys are passive too. They are also utterly dependent on human agency for protection. We don’t know the details—and I for one don’t want to—but we can imagine that some infants were protected by those around them but of course others were not.

In the midst of this horror, we can find a profound truth about the quality of being human. For we are all children, not utterly dependent upon human parents but dependent on God. We owe him our creation, our very breath and all that we can be in the future. Whilst he delegates us some power and authority, we remain under him. In the darkness of the story of the Holy Innocents this is no sentimental claim. This is a fact of life and death.

What do we do with this call to be childlike? This is the call of Jesus himself in Mark 10. It is the psalmist’s surrender recounted in Psalm 123. To be childlike is to empty ourselves, a pale echo of what Christ did. It is to denounce power. It is the only true wisdom. It is fearing God. It is the glance of a devoted servant to God face. It is, in short, about being holy.

Whether you are making, or have made, New Year’s resolutions, or they are not your thing, in 2022 let us all remember that we have a holy yet probably unhistoric part to play in God’s plans. Let us also remember the disturbing truth that no one becomes holy by accident.

 

Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Ephesians 6:18 and Psalm 1—Prayer as the Church’s Banquet

This post is a reflection on prayer with references to Ephesians 6:18, Psalm 1 and George Herbert’s poem Prayer (1). All three are shown below for convenience.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
Ephesians 6:18, NIVUK

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
     that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Psalm 1, NIVUK

Prayer (1)

PRAYER the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
    God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
    Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
    The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
    Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
    Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
    Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
    The land of spices; something understood.
George Herbert (1593–1633)

The Problem of Prayer
Prayer can sometimes seem to be something of a problem. We can easily adopt a variety of negative views of prayer. We sometimes feel that we spend too little time praying. On other occasions, if we’re frank, we go through the motions. Sometimes it’s as if our prayers fizzle out a few metres above our heads and never make it to God’s ear.

And yet we all, I hope, have had experiences of joy, a closeness to God, a feeling of connection with our almighty creator. We all have had prayers that were answered. As frail humans we are good at remembering the challenges rather than the positives of prayer. It’s not even necessarily our sinfulness that’s the problem with prayer. Everything worthwhile in the here and now requires discipline—plain old hard work.

Being good at a sport requires diligence day-after-day, for the fleeting joy of success and victory. Being close to someone in a relationship requires self-giving love over months and years. All made worthwhile for the contentment of closeness that is often rather more fleeting. You can’t win a race after prolonged idleness. A relationship withers without day-by-day effort. You can’t conjure God at the other end of the prayer phone or experience religious bliss at the press of a button.

It’s a fact that prayer requires effort. It’s also the case that we can benefit from a rethink about prayer. A refresher as to its riches and richness can spur us to invest more in this, the lifeblood of our soul. The images we’re going to meet are just three of the twenty-seven used in the poem by George Herbert titled Prayer (1). The twenty-seven are almost certainly twenty-six—one for each letter of the alphabet, an A to Z—plus one as a summary: ‘something understood’.

The Church’s Banquet
Prayer is the Church’s banquet. This might sound a long way from some of our experiences of prayer but let’s run with this and see where we get to. Paul urges us to pray in the Spirit on all occasions. Does this mean something like speaking in tongues and prophecy, gifts that Paul speaks of elsewhere? Well, there are times when this is Paul’s subject. But ‘all occasions’ here puts the onus on us not the Holy Spirit—this is a reminder that we can pray in the spirit or in the flesh. This is the polar choice in all actions that Paul explains in Romans 8.

The choice between praying in the spirit, or in the flesh, echoes the stark choice described in Psalm 1—there we are have the path of the righteous contrasted with the road of the wicked. The earlier verses of Ephesians 6 remind us, lest we forget—that we are righteous. This is only possible as we put on the breastplate of righteousness. In other words, putting on nothing less than Christ. In this we are owning as a reality the image that we, the Church, are Christ’s body.

Psalm 1 reminds us that there is wisdom in avoiding sitting with mockers. In contrast the assembly of the righteous—the gathered body of Christ—is the place to be.

Praying as God’s gathered people is easily taken for granted. But as we seek something heavenly here on earth, and ask our Father in heaven for our daily bread in the way that Jesus taught us, this is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet promised in the gospels—the wedding feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

‘Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.’
Revelation 19:6–8, NIVUK

Paul’s ‘all kinds of prayer and requests’ are course-after-course of prayer. How often do our prayers seem more like hasty serving of tinned fruit than the rich banquet they could be? Why do we jump straight to the requests, which is dessert, before the four previous courses? Let’s breathe, slowdown, and note this is a banquet.

Therefore, how about an appetiser of praise? What about a main course of adoration? What about a salad of thanksgiving? What about a cheese board of confession? Then we get to dessert: our requests and petitions.

Exalted Manna
Prayer is exalted manna. In John 6 we find Jesus saying:

“. . . I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In the wilderness the Lord’s people had to trust God daily for their bread. Each day just enough manna was given to sustain them. Whilst we don’t live in a physical desert, in spiritual terms we in are in a wilderness. As Michael Card puts it in his song, In the Wilderness:

Groaning and growing
Amidst the desert days
The windy winter wilderness
Can blow the self away

In the wilderness
In the wilderness
He calls His sons and daughters
To the wilderness

When we look to God for our daily bread, in prayer, it is wise to remember that everyday we need both a physical meal and a spiritual one. We need Christ, our living bread come down from heaven daily.

In remembering Christ when we share bread and wine, we re-member—we join afresh as one. This is a way in which we, as Paul instructs us, ‘always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’, we go beyond prayer to the physical enactment of a remarkable truth. We are all joined as one body through Christ.

The Land of Spices
The Spice Islands are in a remote part of Indonesia. For centuries Europeans did not know where nutmeg came from just that it came a long way along trade routes from the Far East. In the 16th Century, sailors from multiple nations died in the spice race to find the origin of nutmeg and other exotic spices. The Portuguese got there first, and then the English and Dutch muscled them out. According to the diaries of 16th century sailors and traders they could smell the spice islands before they saw them.

In a sense prayer is the land of spices in that, at its best, we feel a connection with Christ. That sense of peace, that passes all understanding. The still voice of God. Only the poetic can attempt to grasp something of this mystery. Sometimes it’s as if we are for a moment on the verge of heaven. We can almost taste it. We can almost smell it.

‘Praying in the Spirit on all occasions, with kinds of prayer and requests’, can make us feel close to God. We need to heed Paul’s call to alertness. This is the same call ‘to stand’ that the armour of God, in the previous verses, addresses. It’s the same message of readiness and preparedness for the coming Kingdom found in so many of Jesus’ parables.

Our prayer might often be about asking, but its real blessing is simply relationship with God through Christ. This relationship is for us as individuals and especially for us together. It’s our way of re-membering—our connecting to Christ, our head, in whom we have salvation. Such fruit arises through Christ. Elsewhere (2 Corinthians 2:14–16) when we read Paul we might imagine that fruit is like nutmeg:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?

It can only be done in the Spirit, in Christ. And so:

. . . pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems to lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate that already found in the two testaments.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Herbert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalm-like trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it is redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and his place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?