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.
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: