It is an annual tradition here at Following Pulitzer to dive into an honestly Christian-themed poem for Good Friday, although I always strive to offer something I think can meaningfully reach as wide an audience as possible. From a personal standpoint, this is a very powerful day—probably the most significant Friday of the year, most years, and one in which it is hard to give voice to all the thoughts I’m thinking. Some of them thoughts I may not even be ready to give voice to. I know that for some of you it is equally powerful, and for some it is a day of minor significance (perhaps something to note briefly and then turn away from), and for some it really means nothing at all beyond being a Friday much like any other. So offering a poem that can speak to all of us is a challenge—something sincere enough in confronting the Christian story that it can touch the experiences Christians around the world are having today, but also broad and human enough to reach people for whom another faith tradition (or no faith tradition at all) establishes the rhythms of your days and months. I’m going to do my best in discussing it to speak to all of you, whoever and wherever you might be, and I hope what I say resonates on some level.
This year’s poem is by a very talented modern poet, Denise Levertov, which I first read in a collection of hers called The Stream and the Sapphire, a very eclectic collection of the spiritual poems she wrote over a long series of years in which she moved from open agnosticism to a Christian faith that, if not entirely orthodox, isn’t quite what I think most expect from a late 20th Century mainstream poet. The poem itself, entitled “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell”, illuminates one of the most powerful moments in the Jesus stories of the New Testament, and one that has always captured my artistic imagination—it is the long dark day in which Jesus, having died, descends to the dead to call them up to Heaven, before returning to his tomb for the resurrection. The New Testament offers almost no ideas about exactly when or how or why this might have been, but the tiny fragments it half-suggests make up the texts for the beautifully solemn and meditative liturgy of the Holy Saturday service in the Episcopal Church (my chosen denomination)—the shortest service in the Book of Common Prayer, and one most Episcopalians who aren’t on their parish’s altar guild have never attended. Without further ado, Levertov’s take on the image:
Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud: to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food—fish and a honeycomb.
Levertov is working with powerful, elemental images here—the ideas of death and life, of spirit and flesh—and she does so at first in phrases that could hardly be more understated. She wants the intimacy of the event to touch us, and not its grandeur. Where I think the poem perhaps reaches most openly across faith lines to all people is the moment where she uses the word “here” to describe the place where the “merciful dead” and the rest are waiting. Here. Because who among us has not known that kind of dark night—more than a night, for most of us, sometimes whole months and years swallowed up in the feeling of being among the unnumbered, the nameless, the forgotten and lost? And the sheer joy of human connection, then, that pulls us out of that shadow, like these dead, dazzled and unwilling into the light—even if Good Friday means nothing to you on the level of theology, I hope it is a day to acknowledge the real grace that has touched your life in this way. The people who have, with little self-regard or self-restraint, reached into your life to raise up what is dying in you, to restore what has fallen, for the sheer sake of loving you. For me, as a Christian, it is a day to marvel at how that kind of action is at the heart of how I see the universe—that human existence and time and the structure of the universe are all caught up in that motion, an action whereby someone who loves me does something inexplicable and mysterious (in the true sense of the word) that I could not have done for myself. Levertov captures that understanding in the way I think it, throughout the first half of the poem, by seeing these rising dead as real people and describing them as such.
The second half of the poem becomes harder to grasp, I think because the Christian understanding of these events makes them hard to put in human terms—what would it be like to give up freedom for the prison of a body again, to give up joy freely to re-inhabit a broken and wounded body? All the analogies I have ready access to from my own life fall short. I think there are human beings whose extraordinary lives give them an understanding of this kind of action—who have willingly cast aside all their privileges and liberties because they have a job to do, and they are willing to do it. I think of the heroes of civil rights movements everywhere—not just in the United States (though of course here) but also South Africa, and the Soviet Union, and Burma, and countless other countries and times. I wonder how they would read this poem: it’s beyond me to guess at it.
What I do connect with is the final few lines, because Good Friday is a hungry day for me—perhaps my hungriest. I speak those words as an unbelievably comfortable citizen of a nation overflowing with food (although we too often forget that millions of Americans go to bed hungry every night). While fasting on Good Friday, my mind goes to the many who feel this hungry every day—who wake with hunger and work in hunger. My tiny fast helps me see them more clearly, and gives me more of a desire to touch their lives somehow. And I think that’s what Levertov is trying to pin down at the end—the notion that the Incarnation may not be, after all, as much about some kind of complicated theological transaction as it is a faith acknowledging that, for God to truly reach human lives, God needed to be broken like us, hungry and troubled and anxious. And, at the same time, to give others the opportunity to act—something I know I can be bad at, and that many of us are bad at. We hide our pain from others, whether out of pride or fear or shame, and in doing so we not only endure the pain longer but shut out of our friends’ lives the joy of helping us. Something as simple as the acceptance of a piece of fish and a honeycomb can be an act of grace—it can be as blessed to receive as to give, under the right circumstances.
This is the first time in years that I am without my faith community on Good Friday—Betsy and I will be together, but the many familiar faces next to whom we have sung and kneeled and prayed are thousands of miles away. I think it makes me more somber in choosing a poem this year, but I hope it has also made me a little more open than usual about my feelings about this day. And I hope it has touched your life, in whatever sense it can.