And Every Stone Shall Cry
The rest of the world may be moving on to the New Year, but we Christians are still deep in the season of Christmas. 12 days is really not long enough to celebrate Christmas, but we’ll make do.
So in most of our Christmas worship, we want to sing the most obvious hymns possible.
It’s not Christmas if we don’t sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.”
These are gorgeous hymns, rich with meaning, and layered in our hearts with year after year of beautiful memories.
When we sing them, we sort of turn our minds off. Our hearts rise up and shine through our voices, and we experience full, unmediated grace through the words and notes we know so well.
That aspect of Christmas worship—the words and songs that flow off our tongues so easily and joyfully—is so important.
But we also need something else in our Christmas worship.
We need something to make us think.
We need something to help us step back and really think about what it means that God came to Earth as a fragile human baby, that Christ took on our human nature for love of us.
These are huge ideas that it’s hard to get our minds around on the best of days, much less when we’re awash in the aftermath of Christmas dinners and unwrapping presents.
And so this year I did what I often like to do, and take a less well-known hymn, include it in worship, and then explore it here in the sermon. I chose “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted.”
The lyrics are a poem written by Richard Wilbur in 1958.
In the hymnal, it is set to a tune by David Hurd, but Robert joins me in not being in love with that melody, so we set it to a more familiar Christmas tune.
You may have done a double take as you heard the opening strains of our sequence hymn; you are probably most familiar with hearing this tune set to the words of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
“Lo, How a Rose” is a beautiful hymn in and of itself, the words of which go back to the 15th century and the music back to the 16th century. So we’re just borrowing a 16th century melody to accompany our 20th century words about Christmas.
It’s kind of a stark poem when you get down to it, but Richard Wilbur lived in a stark time.
He was born in 1921, and he wrote these words in 1958.
He had been involved in left-wing politics as a young man in college. In 1942 when he applied to be a U.S. army cryptographer, those politics got him flagged as a radical by federal investigators, and he was busted down to front-line infantry in World War II where he served in combat in Italy, France, and Germany.
Despite the government’s best attempts, he survived the war. He continued on to teach at Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan, and Smith colleges, founded a poetry journal, and was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987.
But consider the world in 1958, when he wrote “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted.”
The U.S. was in the darkest depths of the Cold War.
Most Americans believed they would more than likely die in the next five years in a nuclear holocaust, either obliterated in the initial barrage of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union, or die from nuclear fallout, starvation, or disease once most of civilization had been wiped out. It was an incredibly grim time.
In addition to the Cold War, there was a sheen of ultra-consumerist 1950s rah-rah Americanism papering over the growing racial unrest as the Civil Right movement began to build strength.
It was a time of raw juxtapositions, oncoming change, and deep emotional currents that were difficult to navigate.
In short, it was not unlike our own time.
Take a look at the lyrics, they’re on page X of your bulletin. What is Wilbur trying to communicate here? What is he trying to teach us?
In the first stanza, it’s all about the stable. The lamp is lit with a beautiful glow that shines out to the world, the stars begin to sing, the barn is heaven, and the stall a shrine. Lovely.
Then in the second stanza, all of a sudden we go to Holy Week.
“This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by; the palm shall strew its branches, and every stone shall cry.”
That’s the story of Palm Sunday. How did we get from Christmas Day to Palm Sunday?
The third stanza is no help. “Yet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die; the sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry.”
Wilbur is reminding us that Christmas is only the beginning of the story.
Christmas is forever and always linked to Good Friday and Easter.
This beautiful child who has been given to us is destined to die at our own hands.
Even in the context of impending nuclear doom, that’s a pretty harsh thing to think about at Christmas. Thanks, Richard. Way to ruin the party.
But let’s think again. Why might it be important to remember the connection between Holy Week and Christmas?
Because Christmas is God’s best chance to get to us.
Christmas is God’s opportunity to get beyond our defenses so that when the crisis of Holy Week descends, we have some chance of being loyal to Jesus.
The adult Jesus is a loving, gentle, and healing person. But he is also a challenging and even confronting person.
In the gospels, he sometimes says things we don’t like.
The challenge of following him to the Cross may not be so enticing by the time we see him being taken away in chains.
But here and now, he hasn’t healed anyone.
Here and now, he hasn’t fed anyone.
Here and now, he hasn’t preached a single sermon or taught a single parable.
Here and now, he is an infant: defenseless, poor, alone, and utterly enrapturing as all babies are.
Looking into his face, we can’t help but feel an endless devotion to his welfare and his life.
We would do anything to protect this beautiful, fragile child.
We can’t imagine letting anything hurt this baby.
This is the magic of Wilbur’s poem and what transforms us if we let God forge within us a deep connection between Christmas and Holy Week.
There is a repeated line that comes twice per stanza in the poem and once per verse in the hymn: “And every stone shall cry.”
What does that mean?
Consider it in context of the phrase in the third verse: “For stony hearts of men.”
It’s vitally important for us as we kneel in front of this manger looking into the face of the Christ Child, to understand that he is destined to die because he loves us so much and refuses to abandon us.
I know I need my heart of stone to melt, to let the tears stream down my face as I see the Word Made Flesh before me.
But here is where we make the turn to the Good News.
In Luke chapter 19, during Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, we read that “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’”
Wilbur says again and again, “And every stone shall cry.”
We’re not just crying tears of awe and even grief, we’re crying out to the world the wondrous Good News that God has come to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.
For Richard Wilbur, the trials and tribulations of both his own life and the time he lived in could make the very stones weep.
But in a climate of uncertainty and fear, he dared to proclaim that not only does the cross lead to the empty tomb, it leads right back to the manger.
So when our hearts feel made of stone, when we struggle to find compassion within us for ourselves and others, we can remember that “a stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky.”
Somewhere in a hidden part of our wounded souls, a pinprick of light is growing into a flame that will warm and guide us.
And on those days when the joy of Christmas is so vivid all around us that the earth fairly vibrates with love, we can join all of creation in crying out the Good News.
“Every stone shall cry.”
Some days we will cry tears, but on this day we cry out to the heavens, “Glory to God in the highest; peace on earth, and good will to all people.”
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