“. . . the wood which broke beneath the weight of love . . .” (Melissa Range)


“In Dallas, he’d be a lawbreaker.” (Photo: Dallas Observer, Friday, January 29, 2016)

Today is “Holy Saturday” on some church calendars, that is, the second of the three days of the Crucifixion. At sundown, it becomes the “Vigil of Easter.”

The first time I experienced the liturgy for the Vigil of Easter was April 6, 1968 – 49 years ago. I was the neophyte Episcopalian organist for a small church in Ontario, California, a Baptist preacher’s kid, less than a year out of college with a degree in organ performance. That small church was, and still is, the center of “high church” liturgical practice in the Inland Empire of Southern California.

I have difficulty explaining what happened to me on April 6, 1968. For weeks I had been preparing the organ music and the choral music. I thought there was more of it than could possibly fit into one service.

The solemnity and devotion of the Good Friday service the evening before had, at its beginning, offended my Baptist Knees. I was amazed at what I saw as the preposterous and idolatrous veneration of the cross.

And then I got it.

I had a modicum of understanding of the deep conviction of these people and the beauty of its expression. Zealous and almost distantly formal at the same time. I said later that service gave me permission finally to accept Christianity in a way my Baptist heritage had never been able to do.

Easter happened at midnight the next night. Such a celebration! Somber and a bit perplexing for an hour or so of serious passages read from the Hebrew Scriptures with subdued musical responses. But Easter arrived at midnight with the singing of the 1549 “Gloria” by John Merbecke (which I can still sing from memory). The tower bell ringing just outside the choir loft, lights, oodles of flowers carried into the church from the sacristy, joy unbounded. A huge party with sherry after the service at about 1 AM. My kind of place! (Never mind that I had to play hymns for the simple Easter Day service 8 hours later.)

I understood because I had symbolically experienced the devastation of the Crucifixion and the unbounded joy of the Resurrection. I was never sure I believed it had actually happened or that that is the way life really is. But the possibility. Oh, the possibility.

Sue Mansfield, a member of the parish who read the first lesson – Genesis 1 – every year at the Easter Vigil, set my mind to rest. She asked if I believed the church believed. Yes. Then that’s all that’s necessary, isn’t it?

Over the decades, that has become less all that is necessary. I have virtually left off believing any of the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I am hard pressed to say I believe in God (my mental jury is still out).

I have no trouble believing the story of the Crucifixion. All that is necessary for that is to read the news from Syria. Or read about the vicious and virulent anti-Islam forces in this country. Or read about the savage racism of whites toward people of color in this country. Or hear in the news that the federal government has signed a contract with a private prison company to open detention centers to house thousands of persons on their way to deportation. Or hear in the news that Arkansas will execute 8 men in ten days. Or see a high-rise of million-dollar condos built in Dallas that reflects so much sun it ruins the carefully planned artistry of a public oasis of calm and beauty in the center of the city. Or talk with a homeless woman asking for a bit of change as I come out of the super market directly next door to my apartment building. Or hear that our President is contemplating an unprovoked act of war against North Korea.


Eight men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas in 10 days beginning Monday. (Photo: NBC News, Apr 6 2017)

Believing in, seeing proof of, the Crucifixion is a trivial pursuit.

The Resurrection is much more difficult to find. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is well-hidden.

I can believe in a Jesus of Nazareth whose

. . . sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory—
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree

but I have all but given up looking for the Resurrection. My unbelief is not, of course, based on my accepting “proof.” I am not simply a Doubting Thomas wanting to see it for myself. My agnosticism is not based on a lack of physical proof (ask me, and I will talk about it, but not here).

However, a preponderance of evidence proclaims the Crucifixion so loudly that it is difficult for me (and, I think, many others) to wade through it to a Resurrection. Perhaps those who believe could demonstrate (or at least point out) to us more convincingly that it is true.

“All Creation Wept,” by Melissa Range

And not just those disciples
whom he loved, and not just
his mother; for all creation

was his mother, if he shared
his cells with worms and ferns
and whales, silt and spiderweb,

with the very walls of his crypt.
Of all creation, only he slept,
the rest awake and rapt with grief

when love’s captain leapt
onto the cross, into an abyss
the weather hadn’t dreamt.

Hero mine the beloved,
cried snowflakes, cried the moons
of unknown planets, cried the thorns

in his garland, the nails bashed
through his bones, the spikes of dry grass
on the hillside, dotted with water

and with blood—real tears,
and not a trick of rain-light
blinked and blurred onto a tree

so that the tree seems wound
in gold. It was not wound
in gold or rain but in a rapture

of salt, the wood splintering
as he splintered when he wept
over Lazarus, over Jerusalem,

until his sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory—
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree,

the wood which broke beneath the weight
of love, though it had no ears to hear
him cry out, and no eyes to see.

Excerpted from Scriptorium: Poems by Melissa Range (Beacon Press, 2016).

Melissa Range was born and raised in East Tennessee. She received an MFA from Old Dominion University, and an MTS from Emory University. She was selected in 2006, for the National Poetry Series by Tracy K. Smith, and Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). She has received awards and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others. She currently teaches at Lawrence University and lives in Wisconsin.

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it

what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.