March 23, 2016

The Poetry of Holy Week

Every year, her words come back to me around this time of year. I think it was during Holy Week, or maybe a week or two before, when the pastor of the congregation where I served as seminarian said, “I honestly don’t know what else to preach on Easter! What should I add?” she wondered. “Maybe I should just get in the pulpit, take a deep breath, look around with a smile and say, one more time, ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’ And sit down.”

I remember that her words sounded odd to me at the time. It was probably an off-handed statement, maybe the exasperation of not coming up with anything to say. But seminarians read a lot and think a lot and write a lot, and at that point in my life I was convinced that there was always something more I needed to add to any given theological point or doctrine. Such are the nature of late-night conversations and arguments in seminary.

Now, however, I’m not so sure.

Now, however, I understand what she was really saying; what she really meant. What else can we bring to this story? What other meaning can we draw out? Looking at the pure drama and rhythm of Holy Week, itself, the movement through these stories to Easter Day, what else can we, should we add?

It’s around this time that I turn to poetry much more than prose. Like many others, I have my own ‘canon’ of preferred poets, religious and otherwise; Mary Oliver and George Herbert in my top slots. And those who’ve attended Holy Week and Easter worship at St. George’s, Valley Lee are probably getting used to these names, and I’d like to think they’re growing a bit more accustomed to Holy Week meditations, and poetry readings, and musing homilies that don’t really have a point, a “Now you should do/consider/pray about such-and-such…”

To be honest, I often turn more to poetry than prose, not just near Holy Week and Easter but in life, throughout. Looking back, that period in my life in which I was busily obsessing over hermeneutics and systematic theology had an abrupt end, and well before the end of my time in Divinity School at that. Most likely, I didn’t do much more than replace one orthodoxy with another; tossing out my once treasured volumes of modern theology with dog-eared poetry collections, convinced at that point that everything – every utterance of anyone, including philosophers and theologians, whether modern or ancient – were themselves poetry. (My paper for the Jonathan Edwards seminar I took in my last year had a few odd twists, I suppose. I remember the Dean’s very generous comment in the margins, “…Though he’s not (technically) a poet, I take your point.”)

But even that point in my own life, as liberating as it was, was, itself, just another part of my own learning and growth curve – as I suppose this time is, as well. Poetry, I’ve come to sense, is not a series of statements, profound and internally sufficient. Poetry is not just another system, another form of logic at work. Poetry is a force of its own, and it begins, in my experience, where words and logic and explanations leave off. It begins and finds its meaning in these truly awful stories we tell this week: betrayal, pain, thirst, breathing his last. It’s exalted when we find ourselves face to face with the truest thing we know, and the thing we can barely explain: that we are loved, totally and completely, and maybe our response is just to experience the embrace and not add more, but a few more lines which are really open-ended invitations for more disciples to walk in and create their own web of meaning.

Maybe that’s why George Herbert (Love (III), anyone?) keeps coming back, and Mary Oliver, too. Maybe that’s why John Chrysostom’s famous Easter sermon – barely 500 words, preached 1,200 years ago! – are such timeless representations of what we’re about. Maybe that’s one of the own internal blessings of this week and these days: this quiet, these practices of contemplation which remind us that in the face of mysteries as great as these it’s alright, perfectly alright to be still.

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