Seven Stanzas at Maundy Thursday

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There is something about high art forms that touches the soul.

And Sam… stood up and cried: “O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!” And then he wept.

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voices of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.[1]

In The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien pulls out all the stops to describe what it was like to be in the presence of the once-crownless king. Were they written by a less skilled writer, we might be tempted to label his euphoric descriptors as outré or syrupy. Few authors so expertly weave together emotion and art form into one seamless tender-minded apologetic, especially with the major enveloping factor being music; and not just any music, but music that wounds with sweet words.

While that concept might sound odd, we experience much the same mingling of pain and delight in many of the hymns sung in our churches. The topic of hymnody in the Lutheran church has been covered quite well by artisans who understand the craft far better than I. (Personally, I find immense comfort in the Psalmic admonition to “make a joyful noise to the LORD,” which adds no qualifier of whether or not one can carry a tune in a bucket.) However, what Tolkien understood is something that we, whether we are musically gifted or not, would do well to understand.

There is something about high art forms that touches the soul. Artists, musicians, actors and actresses, writers, dancers, and other creators know the mysterious pull of something just out of reach. Beauty as revealed in the aesthetic of a belief or idea is a primary motivator. The tender-minded approach is a way to speak not only to the mind, but also to the soul.

So why discuss this today, on Maundy Thursday? Interestingly, at least in the Lutheran tradition, we have few hymns that specifically address this day. For example, in Christian Worship, there are only two Maundy Thursday hymns. Likewise, the most popular pieces of art for this day (with the most notable exception being da Vinci’s The Last Supper) portray a calm, collected Jesus who is praying serenely in a garden instead of a sweating, agonized Savior anticipating the horrors of hell. The lack of artistic expression seems to be a great loss, especially on a day when tender-minded experience and tough-minded fact are so apparent—or perhaps it is not as much a loss as it is an opportunity, an opening for the tender-minded to create works that mirror the “Love unknown”[2]making Himself fully known.

The gravity and terrible beauty of Lent are intensified on this day. The wine of blessedness, the very blood of Jesus Christ, is given to us. Fact and perfect Myth are one in the incarnation, and in Gethsemane we see true God and true man in shocking intensity. Love will win, not by outwitting justice, but by submitting fully to it; not by overlooking the wrath of a holy God against every sin, but by enduring the reality of immense torment and killing death forever. Our joy is like swords, but our Savior is not merely “like” God, He actually is true God, and He is both love and truth. That is the scandalous splendor of Lent: Christ suffered for us in the most passionate story ever told, and that story is history.

There is something about high art forms that touches the soul.

John Updike captured some of this awe in his work “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” Instead of “mock[ing] God with metaphor,” he presents a beautifully written defense of the historical, literal resurrection. “It was not as the flowers, Each soft spring recurrent,” he writes, “… It was as His flesh; ours.”[3] The juxtaposition of masterful writing with an unapologetically apologetical stand on truth is an incredible example of presenting the truth of Christianity alongside its beauty. Notice this is not a dichotomy: it is not either mind or heart, but mind andheart.

It is perhaps the height of hubris to quote Tolkien, reference Updike, and then present my own humble verses in the same post, but the connection I draw is one not of similar talents but of similar intent. The following lines are intended as a reflective hymn, and it is my prayer that as you meditate on the passion of our Lord, you are struck once again by the depth, length, and breadth that Christ was eager to go in order to secure your salvation.

O great glory and splendor, indeed, Samwise—for here in Gethsemane we see the beginning of our wishes come true: the reconciling of God and Man as Jesus drinks the cup of wrath to give us life, forgiveness, and salvation through His blood.

Through the Still, Nocturnal Garden
Tune: O Mein Jesu, Ich Muss Sterben

Through the still, nocturnal garden
Came a groan of deepest pain—
Christ chose death to grant us pardon,
Sweating blood like drops of rain.
See the King of every nation bend unto His Father’s will
To secure for them salvation who were plotting, Him to kill.

Prayers like incense streaming from Him
For us now see His resolve.
No dread army, flaming ser'phim
Could for all our sins absolve.
All the raging flights of darkness that within us prowl and lurk
Have but one resounding redress: Christ and His redeeming work.

“Rise, arise, oh Sleeper waken,”
YAHWEH to the sinner sighs—
“You are yet by fears o’ertaken,
Captive to the Tempter’s lies.
Wake, the hour is upon us—your atonement is at hand.”
Love unbound!—my Savior, Jesus, makes Himself the Paschal Lamb.

See the soldiers break the stillness
With the fire of torch and soul.
They who saw Him curing illness—
Pard’ning, healing, making whole.
Hear the traitor’s lilting greeting, sweetened like forbidden fruit;
’Tis the same voice in us beating, captive to our sinful root.

Sinner, look on your condition
Is it not with Judas one?
Sins of choice and of omission
Who could bear the dreadful sum?
Were it not for Jesus’ passion we would die, still in our sin
Sinners all in Adam’s fashion never could salvation win.

The betrayer’s eyes were gleaming
With the glint of Esau’s greed;
Yet the Savior’s gaze was streaming
With content to die, to bleed.
For the ones who chose to scorn Him, He poured out His Spirit’s breath
To redeem those buried by sin, who called for His blood and death.

Now on this we build securely:
Christ, the sacrifice of all.
The redeemed of Him shall surely
Have God’s hearing when they call.
For the sake of Jesus’ merit, by the Law which He fulfilled,
Came the Gospel we inherit: Adam’s curse by Mercy killed.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 965.

[2] Samuel Crossman, "My Song is Love Unknown," Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, third printing (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2005), 110.

[3] John Updike, "Seven Stanzas at Easter," in Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2015), 15.