Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Month: February, 2016

Terror Dark, and Deep

23 February 2016
Gen. 15:1-21; Luke 13:31-35
2nd Sunday in Lent, Yr C

It was a ghastly, blood-soaked business
this cutting up of heifer, goat, and sheep,
the stuff that makes for nightmares after
and for terror, dark and deep.

Ominous as a thundercloud, this promise;
more gloom than grace, it plagues his fitful sleep.
Floating torch and firepot, mute and ghostly,
do not assuage this terror, dark and deep.

In the night, the dark divines a covenant,
but covenants are words for gods to keep,
while we who restless only yearn for daybreak,
must pass through terror, dark and deep.

I first was introduced to this story of God’s covenant with Abram in my first year of seminary. My worthy professors of exegesis did their best to make sense of this dark tale, but their explanations all went straight over my head. Not much has changed in the 40 years since. There is so much in this dark, strange little tale of Abram that I don’t understand. I have no clue why it was so important to line a pathway with the halved carcasses of animals. I have no idea what the floating firepot and torch mean. I am not alone in this. I know of no scholar who sees through the darkness of this text with sufficient clarity to report to the rest of us what the heck is going on here.

Which leaves me to do exactly what my Old Testament professors—all great scholars of another generation—warned me not to do: insert myself and my own psychology into this story, to sit with its details and feel its emotions, and to ask myself what stirs in me. And when I do that, I find myself brought up short by this sentence:

vayahi hashemesh lavo; tardemah naphlah al-avram;
vayahi emah chashekah gdolah nophelet alav

And as the sun was going down, sleep overcame Abram,
and there descended upon him a terror dark and deep.

There is something in me that trembles at the approach of those words.

When I was five, I contracted scarlet fever. The penicillin shots they gave me worked well enough, but not before I spent four days running high fevers and wandering in and out of a fever dream. In my dream, I lay on my back on my bed, in a dark room with the shades drawn, immobile and alone. I was immobile not because I was paralyzed—at least not physically so—but because I was terrified. You see, above me, from the room’s ceiling down to my bedsheets, the room was filled with a gigantic slab of granite, of unimaginable tonnage, a rock cast up from basement of time. And yet unlike any granite I ever knew, it was completely transparent. It was kept from crushing me by nothing more than a straight pin balanced upright on the end of my nose. Had I chosen to move, even to heave a sigh or call out for help, the movement would have brought the immeasurable weight down on me, flattening me and the bed and the floor beneath, and driving us all into the ground below. I can still remember how it looked—I could see it, but also see through it, clear enough to make out the darkened shadows of desk and lamp and door frame, the normal accouterments of my room. I remember how it smelled—like driveway gravel after a hard rain, a moist yet strangely dusty odor that I smelled every rainy day when my father pulled his car into the garage. Mostly, I remember the terror. I lay there for hours—or so it seemed—too terrified to move, praying silent prayers for my mother to come, yet praying also that she would not, lest her entry into the room disturb the ticklish balance of the stone.

I find myself wondering if that’s what it felt like to be Abram, there in the darkling day, bloody and beleaguered, between the halves of animals he had only moments ago sawn in two. I wonder if, exhausted from his labor and overwhelmed with the blood and gore around him, he sank into something like a fever dream, where he heard the voice of God.

When God speaks in the dark, God doesn’t often say pleasant things. God—or some divine figure—ambushes Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok (Gen 32:22ff). In the predawn darkness in Shiloh, God shows Samuel the divine blueprint for the destruction on the house of Eli (1 Sam 3). In Job, Eliphaz is overwhelmed with “dread…and trembling, which made all my bones shake” (Job 4:13), just before he hears the central question of the tale: “Can mortals be righteous before God?” I suspect that the angelic visit to Joseph requiring that he proceed with plans to marry his young betrothed, now very publicly and scandalously pregnant, wasn’t exactly greeted with rejoicing (Mt 1:20). I wonder if Luke’s shepherds, recently visited by the heavenly chorus singing their Alleluias, weren’t more dumbstruck than dazzled; otherwise why were they “sore afraid”—a phrase I have always found more evocative of the physicality of fear than the NRSV’s “terrified.” Perhaps it is true that, before you can hear the promise of God, you have to get past the terror of God, a terror—as Abram will tell you—dark and deep.

God’s word to Abram is a dark command. “Know this for certain,” says the God who speaks through the terror, “make no mistake”: your descendants will be wanderers and slaves, living in lands they do not own, serving masters they do not choose, and not for a day or a season, but for nearly half a millennium. Abram must have yearned to hear the “but” after those bitter words, must have hoped for some better fate than bondage for the progeny whose promise he had treasured since he had left Haran following the call of this strange God. And finally the promise came, sort of: God swears to bring judgment on the masters, and to swell the larders of the mastered. Some relief there, I guess. Even so, it’s a dark word, this promise, and hardly takes the edge off the terror in the night.

What follows is stranger and more terrifying still. Down the bloody corridor of carcasses comes a fire pot and a torch, symbols whose meaning is now lost in obscurity. In what sort of rite do fire pot and torch pass between sacrifices, as if on their own power, as if borne by ghostly—or divine—hands? Abram stands witness at the edge of the unknown, and says not a word, moves not a muscle, as if by speaking or moving he might bring the weight of the universe crashing down upon him. And again comes the voice, and this time it is good news at last: To your descendants I will give this land. You have a future. You have a hope. You have a home. There is an end to the darkness, even if there is yet much darkness to traverse.

In Luke’s little tale of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, there is also darkness, even if it’s less obvious. Jesus is warned of Herod’s plot to kill him, and he retorts with apparent disdain for Herod’s power, declaring his intent to “finish my work.” But Jesus’ reply to Herod’s threat has nothing to do with Herod; it has everything to do with Jesus’ awareness that an apocalyptic darkness was about to descend—on Herod, on Jerusalem, on the empire, and on Jesus himself. The evocative image of the mother hen trying in vain to corral her chicks to protect them from the fox captures the mood: that awful anguish—or is it better described as terror?—as you watch the inevitable and cataclysmic unfold, as though watching your child run into the street into the path of an oncoming car. The apocalyptic darkness is gathering. And with Jesus’ words, “See, your house is left to you,” his resignation to that darkness seems complete. Terror overwhelms, dark and deep.

We are two weeks downstream from the penitence of Ash Wednesday, and hip deep in Lent. And though we are perhaps inured to it, distracted as we are by class assignments and still-unfamiliar routines, around the edges of the life of faith a darkness is gathering. It will not wane or go away; it will only grow and deepen, until it is unavoidable, all-consuming. It will grow until at its blackest, most terrifying heart, we come to a cross.

Dame Edith Sitwell was a literary maven of mid-twentieth century London, an eccentric woman whose life and loves were well-chronicled and always on the edge of outrageous. She was also a woman of faith, and like her contemporary TS Eliot, a convert to Roman Catholicism in mid-life. Of her poetic legacy, one poem stands out above the others, “Still Falls the Rain.” The poem is written during the London Blitz of 1940, when Londoners sought cover in basements and subway tubes while Luftwaffe bombers rained death and destruction from the skies. The irregular pulsing rhythm of her lines mirrors the constant thump-thumping of explosions heard from below in the underground darkness.
Sitting in he shelters, Sitwell saw the terror dark and deep, the darkness that swirls at the foot of the cross. Here is her poem:

Still Falls the Rain
Edith Sitwell

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet

On the Tomb:
Still falls the Rain

In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm in the brow of Cain.

Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us—
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.

Still falls the Rain—
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds,–those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear—
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh… the tears of the hunted hare.

Still falls the Rain—
Then— O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune—
See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree

Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world,—dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar’s laurel crown.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain—
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”*

At last comes the good news: Terrifying as it is, the darkness is not total. In the midst of that terror, Abram at long last hears it the word of God’s faithfulness to promise and progeny, to the hope of a future. Sitwell sees it, even amid the blackouts and the constant thumping rain of bomb and blood: the “innocent light” that yet burns in the gathering gloom. Darkly foreboding as Jesus’ words are, they conclude not with futility and alienation, but in the promise that, “when the time comes,” we will say together, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” haltingly at first, but with hope rising in our voices. It may appear that, at the end of the Lenten journey, there waits only darkness and pain and cross. But the unimaginable is also true. The time will come, even if not yet. The promise will be realized, even if not today. We must get through the terror, dark and deep. But beyond, there is a new day dawning over the horizon of an empty tomb.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.


*from Collected Poems of Edith Sitwell (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993).

Old Horse

An old horse
is trained to the bit
and accustomed to the yoke and harness.

An old horse
plows a straight furrow
even though a slack hand holds the reins.

An old horse
uncomplaining pulls the wagon
heavy-loaded with the victuals of life.

If you desire
the steed rearing, fiery-eyed,
pawing eager for the battle charge,

the thoroughbred
who minds the rider’s whip and
noses out the win before the wire,

you do well to consider
as you throw the saddle on his back
and reach beneath to cinch the billet strap that

an old horse
is trained to the bit
and accustomed to the yoke and harness.