In the late 1950’s, the poet Richard Wilbur was approached by the composer Richard Winslow to write a poem that he could set for an upcoming Christmas concert at Wesleyan University. Wilbur, who was a relative newcomer on the poetry scene at that time but who would eventually become the Poet Laureate of the United States, accepted the invitation, put pen to paper, and wrote a poem that he called A Christmas Hymn. In his recounting of this story, Wilbur says that his friend Winslow set this new poem for solo voice and harpsichord in a style that reminded him, the poet recalls with a grin, of John Cage. For all of the non-John Cage fans or scholars out there in the congregation, this means that the music was probably not particularly warm and fuzzy, and it was not, apparently, exactly what Wilbur himself had in mind.
But in the early 1980’s, the organist, composer and General Theological Seminary professor David Hurd found the poem A Christmas Hymn and took Wilbur at his word, setting the text as a hymn. He named his new hymn tune after Lily Rogers, his choir director when he was a boy soprano at Saint Gabriel’s Church on Long Island, a woman whose middle name was Andújar. Hurd’s hymn, which is quite warm and fuzzy with plush harmonies and gently rocking rhythms, quickly found its way into The Hymnal 1982. You can find it right in front of you – Hymn 104, familiarly known as “A stable lamp is lighted.”
Now if you were to look up “A stable lamp is lighted,” which you’re welcome to do now or after communion, when we will sing it together, you will notice that, true to the poem’s original title, this hymn is found in the Christmas section of the hymnal, wedged right between “A child is born in Bethlehem” and “God rest you merry, gentlemen.” And you may wonder why we, sitting here with palms in our hands, ox-blood vestments on our shoulders, and Holy Week on our mind, are delving into the Christmas hymns. As if there weren’t enough options in the Lent and Holy Week sections to keep us flush in hymns from now until next Sunday. So why Christmas in March? Now for some of you, this hymn is like an dear old friend, and you know that the reason we sing this Christmas Eve hymn on Palm Sunday is because of the hymn’s gently rocking refrain. For Wilbur took this refrain for his poem not from the story of a manger with shepherds and angels, but from the story of a procession with cloaks and a colt.
The poem’s refrain comes from the moment in today’s Gospel when Jesus silences the Pharisees who are anxious about the noise level of the crowd by telling them that even if these crowds were silent, “the stones would shout out.” These stones are the crux of Wilbur’s poetry, the heartbeat pulsing at the center of each verse, where “every stone shall cry, and every stone shall cry.” Wilbur knew the truth of today’s liturgy: that what is true at the end is also true at the beginning, that the Passion and the Palms and the Incarnation are one story, and that this story and these stones have something to tell us.
“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.” First, Christmas, where the gentle rocking is the rocking of a woman, a girl, really, cradling her miracle of a son in her humble, holy arms. In his presence, the cold cave is transformed, the straw shining like gold in the lamplight, the stars sending their heavenly voices down past the angels singing peace on earth, goodwill toward men, down, down to touch the place where heaven and earth are met together in this boy child. In his presence, every stone shall cry out with quiet wonder, the hewn-out stone of the manger where his tiny body is laid to rest on a blanket of straw, the stone of the cave walls that hold the holy family close and safe, the stones of the shepherds’ fields and of all of Creation that welcome this newborn child home to the world that he himself has made.
“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.” This child, a man really, now winds his way from Bethany to Jerusalem, down a hill and up again, rocking back and forth on the broad, swayed back of a donkey. And in his presence, children with their mothers, old men and their sons, the broken and the whole, the weary and the zealous, all strew his path with smiles and shouts and robes and a riot of spiky branches. In his presence, every stone shall cry out with utter joy, the stones on the hillsides that shine green in the sun, the stones in the road that bends through the valley, the stones of the city wall that cause this man to weep with the desire to open his arms up wide, wide enough to wrap up the whole city, wide enough to hold the world in his saving embrace.
“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.” God’s love refused, the love that has been made flesh, this man, a victim, really, now handed over, his embrace utterly rejected, outstretched arms smacked away and pinned down with nails to an old wooden cross. And when he is raised up high on that cross, the women who have followed him faithfully sink to the ground, rocking to and fro in each other’s arms, keening and wailing and waiting for their teacher, their friend, their son die. And when he does, the heavens that once sang in their courses sag and droop in disbelief at what Creation has done to the Creator. And in the presence of this, every stone shall cry out in pain, the stones of Golgotha that are broken and bloodied by so much suffering and death, the stones of fear and hatred that sit in the place of men’s souls, the stones of grief that mark the loss, the death, the end.
“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.” This reconciling Child, a man, a victim, a Savior, really, has shown us through his cross and Passion that this end has always been, from the very beginning, from that birth which led to death which led to life, the rocking forward from incarnation to passion to resurrection. Now the songs of the stars are of peace on earth and peace in heaven, of two worlds made one, once and for all. And in the presence of this song, every stone shall cry out with love, the stones of the tomb ringing with emptiness, the stone that was rejected now made the chief cornerstone, the stone of Death, so heavy, dull, and dumb, lifted away and polished so that it shines like the sun.
But we get ahead of ourselves, speaking of those Sunday morning stones. They will come in due time. For today, hear what the words of this poem and the music of this hymn have to say, that there is no stone that cannot sing. There is no stone that cannot be softened, enlivened, shaped to shout God’s purposes – not the stones of the manger, not the stones underfoot on the Jerusalem road, not the stones looming on the hill of crucifixion, not the stones waiting at the tomb, not the stone that calcified around Judas’ heart, not the stone that set up shop where Peter’s courage used to be, not the stone of the centurion’s unforgiving authority. There is no stone that God cannot soften, encourage, cajole to cry out that Jesus Christ is Lord. So if there are places in you that are hardened by fear or by sorrow, do not fear. If there are places in you that resist Christ’s offer of transformation, be of good cheer. And this week, may you find yourself singing. For here, in the presence of this child, man, victim, Savior, even the stones will shout out. Every stone shall cry. Perhaps even you and me.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Palm Sunday, 24 March 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia