Every Stone Shall Cry

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Every Stone Shall Cry

News of the recent death of poet Richard Wilbur brings to mind a beautiful and theologically profound hymn, new to The Hymnal 1982, whose words were penned by Wilbur: “A stable lamp is lighted.” The tune by David Hurd is hauntingly simple with a flowing accompaniment that continues between stanzas, tying the whole hymn into one ongoing musical piece whose final resolution is held off until some three measures after the last word is sung. The text is worth it.

Wilbur’s poem is constructed of eight-line stanzas. In each stanza, the fourth and fifth lines repeat, “And every stone shall cry.” We begin at the Christmas stable, where “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.”

The second stanza jumps to the end, the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. “The palm shall strew its branches, / And every stone shall cry.” As in the first stanza, here “cry” means something like “cry out” or “praise”: even the stones praise the birth of Christ, and years later they also praise his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. 

One of Father Andrew Mead’s punchy lines was “No Easter, no Christmas.” Christmas is a holiday for us only because of the great events of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection; if they had not occurred, we would not care about his birth. Wilbur’s poem gets it. The third stanza is Jesus’ death, “forsaken,” “yielded up to die.” Every stone cries —here “cry” means “weep” — “For stony hearts of men.” In addition, the poet gets the full truth of the Incarnation, when he goes on to say that it is “God’s blood upon the spearhead / God’s love refused again.”

Then, on the very edge of Easter, the poet cycles back to Christmas, to “now,” to a place in the church year where we’re looking forward to what is to come. “But now, as at the ending, / The low is lifted high.” And every stone now cries in praise “of the Child” by whose Incarnation salvation is won: “By whose descent among us / The worlds are reconciled.”

Richard Wilbur, 1921–2017. May he rest in peace.
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Out & About. This Sunday, October 22, I am preaching at the traditional services (7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.) at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas. Then at 6 p.m., also at Incarnation, I will give the Fall Theology Lecture: “What Good Is Authority?” The lecture will be in the church itself, with time for questions; a reception will follow.
   

October 28 through November 1, I will be visiting All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. Besides preaching at their Saturday and Sunday services, I will teach weekday classes on “Who Was David?” (M-W at 11 a.m.) and “The Political Theology of Oliver O’Donovan” (M-W at 6 p.m.).

Some links: I preached on Isaiah 5 a couple of weeks ago, which is not only a parable of a vineyard but a love song! It seems important to remember that the story has a frame that evokes other important parts of the Old Testament:

Losing Susan has just been reviewed in the Church Times, the weekly newspaper connected with the Church of England: 

Closeness

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I was in Phoenix, giving a talk to a parish group about Losing Susan. In the course of things I mentioned that after seminary I was a curate at Zion Church in Wappingers Falls, New York, in the beautiful Hudson Valley. A man waited to speak to me afterwards. He said he had used to take care of the organ at Zion. He mentioned the organist, Noel Hart; I said Noel was there when I was.
    Now here we were, thirty years later, two thousand miles from Wappingers Falls, greeting each other.
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    Up in Lewisville, a couple told me they were going to the Hudson Valley this week. They used to live on the west side of the Hudson and went to St. Gregory’s in Woodstock. Their priest then was Tom Miller—I knew Tom, and would drive to Woodstock for some drama and music programs they had in the church. “There was a novelist in the congregation,” I said; they said, “Gail Godwin.” She wrote a novel that I read back in the day, The Good Husband. We went on to talk about the unusual architect we shared, who had designed both St. Gregory’s and my parish in Hopewell Junction. “Was yours also an A-frame?” they asked me. He had a genius for designing interesting but difficult church buildings.
    So here we were, some twenty-five years later, fifteen hundred miles from the Hudson Valley, meeting for the first time, talking about ordinary and quirky church life that we were both a part of a generation ago.
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    Am I becoming more like my father? He was always drawing out connections with people. A year before he died, I was with him in the ER. The nurse came back and the first thing my father said was, “Did you say you were from—?” and he named a town. “No, I didn’t,” said the nurse, which didn’t really faze my father; he went on to say something about that place anyway. I think it helped him feel at home to know something about the people around him, to find something that they had something in common.
    And my grandmother! She was a farmer, and some thirty years ago she was in a hospital in a big city. But instead of being lost in that large corporation of medical experts, she was surrounded by nurses and doctors that were connected to the place she had come from. It was as if she had re-created a small town around her in the midst of the impersonal city.
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    The church is, in this sense, a small town; and one of the blessings of my life today is that I get to see that frequently. I relish making these connections; they bring back memories. But more is going on. People are meant to live in connection: in families, often; in neighborhoods (parishes!); in cities. The worst effect of sin, humanly speaking, is that it corrupts these relationships.
    At our best, we are reaching out. And as with everything, it can happen through and with Christ. Overcoming sin, he extends his arms in a way that offers us connection with him and thus with one another. Perhaps the most beautiful line in the 1979 Prayer Book is this: He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.
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    Out & about. Sunday, October 22, I will be preaching at the traditional morning services (7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.) at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas.
    Also on October 22, at 6 p.m. I will give the Fall Theology Lecture: “What Good Is Authority?” (also at Incarnation, Dallas). The lecture will be given in the church itself, is free and open to the public, will include time for questions and be followed by a reception. As I’ve previously mentioned, to illustrate authority I intend to look at church and sport, two of our favorite things.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."