Friday, March 26, 2010

“The Stones Would Cry Out!” Palm Sunday Ruminations on the Cradle and the Cross

At which end of Jesus’ life should we look for the reason we call him “Lord and Savor?” My friends in the Mercersburg Society put heavy stress on the Incarnation.  Others, such as P. T. Forsyth, insist that we only can understand the Incarnation backwards in time, from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection. (See, for example, on this point, a great quote from Forsyth here.)

From my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, one of the early and still best narrative theologians, I have learned to be careful not to take any episode of the story to represent the whole.

But I must confess I do agree here with Forsyth, though he has sometimes been criticized as being so focused on the cross that he neglects other parts of Jesus' life and work.

So what is the relationship between the cradle and the cross?  If one were to only read Marks’s Gospel, the answer is simple, since he has no infancy narratives at all and begins with Jesus’s adutlt ministry.

But for many of us, this is the year of Luke in our lectionaries, and it is well to remember that of all the Evangelists, it is Luke who includes the most infancy material: “the Annunciation,” “the Visitation,”  shepherds and heavenly choirs, etc.  It is no accident we all read Luke at our services on Christmas Eve.  If we read Mark, we’d get home much earlier.

I heard somewhere, I can't recall where, that “the wood of the cradle is the same wood as the wood of the cross.”  There is much theological truth in that.

So once again I turn to a poet to express deep truths that may elude the prose of the theologians.

Richard Wilbur (1921-) is one of my favorite poets (I have many), and although I have never met him, is my Berkshire County neighbor and a sometimes worshipper at the congregation where I now mostly worship.

A two time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Laureate, Wilbur has made a startling but brilliant connection between Christ’s Incarnation and Cross in his poem A Christmas Hymn.

It is often sung to one of several musical settings at Christmas, but the refrain is right from Luke’s Palm Sunday story, and the concluding verse reminds us of the reason for Christ’s vocation that led to Good Friday.  Such a good reminder to keep the whole arc of the story in view when looking at the any of the parts:

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David's city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God's blood upon the spearhead,
God's love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

(A Christmas Hymn by Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems, 1988, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.)


  1. Thanks, Rick. I'd not seen this before. Lovely.

  2. I too "have learned to be careful not to take any episode of the story to represent the whole" but it is curious the way Jesus seems to bring incarnation and the cross together in his "Last Supper." He takes the passover meal which memorializes the story of the exodus, possibly the true starting point of the Biblical narrative (with Genesis as its' prequel), and in calling the wine his blood and the bread his body, he centers the whole meal around himself. He takes the central piece of the biblical narrative and places his actual body and blood, the incarnate body and blood of God, and places them at the center of the story so that the pouring out of his blood and the breaking of his body become essential to the incarnation itself. The death and resurrection are the true substance and the sustenance (bread and wine) of the incarnation. Jesus brought God to a cross and thereby defeated death once and for all through glorious resurrection. It is from this resurrection narrative that the whole of Christian discipleship and even activism come forth.

    Acts 2:23-41
    1Corinthains 15

  3. Rick,

    Very special!

    Your ministry continues.


  4. Jeanny and Gabe, thanks for the good words of encouragement.

    Wes, thank you for your thoughtful insights, especially about the Lord's Supper. I think it is key. Many scholars I trust, including Richard Bauckham, think is an authentic piece of the very earliest kergma, and was Jesus' way of trying to explain to his disciples the meaning of his death. Regardless, it is canon which is good enough for me.

    BTW, Wes, I went on your blog, and I see that you are a youth minister in the UCC. Hang in there, we need folks like you.


  5. Thanks for this Rick. I'll be using this poem in my sermon (and your hymn "He died upon a lonely tree" after the sermon!).
    I'm looking for a recording of this Wilbur hymn - not sure where to look (google didn't get me too far...) What do you know?
    Blessed Palm / Passion!

  6. Gail,

    I heard it in church. I can ask the organist.
    You need it right away?

    A blessed week back at you, and a glorious Easter.