There is a delightful Old English poem offered referred to as Christ I or Christ A that contains the following lines:
…you yourself come, so that you illuminate those who for the longest time, covered by smoke, and in darkness here, dwelled in continual night; enfolded in sins, they had to endure the dark shadow of death. Now we believe in joyful salvation…
If you’re a Tolkien nerd, I suggest you read the poem in its entirety, as you will find some of the source material for Eärendil there (and it is also just staggeringly beautiful). But for our purposes, I’ll simply call your attention to the starkness of it: the staging of both light and dark not as present in much of our modern worship, the acknowledgement of the cosmic depth of humanity’s need.
There’s a prayer I read from the Chaldean liturgy that also captures a bit of this mood in another way:
Sow love and peace and harmony.
Uphold our priests and calm our kings.
Heal all our sick and guard the strong;
Forgive the sins of all mankind.
It’s such a simple prayer, but unlike many of our more modern petitions. We ask for our sick to be cured, certainly, and we pray for the forgiveness of sins, but a supplication to “calm our kings” feels like a relic, the remnant of a time when believers were subject to the whims and wishes of capricious rulers who can be cruel, unkind, and vicious.
But it isn’t. Or it shouldn’t be.
We—and by we I mean American Christians—have tricked ourselves, since the Enlightenment, into believing we are masters of the world in some way. We don’t feel, by and large, that we are at the mercy of cosmic forces much larger than us. We believe we are big, and the world is small, rather than that the world is big and we are small. We do not perceive our kings as dangerous, whimsical forces to be calmed so much as political obstacles to be protested against or cowed into submission by a voting bloc. We plot our paths forward. We decide our course of action. We prefer to cast ourselves as those who act, not those who are acted upon.
We behave, often, like those who have forgotten what cosmic smallness looks like.
Some of my colleagues have lived under monarchies and dictatorships. They tell me fascinating stories of what life looks like under such a regime, day to day: when a week suddenly becomes a holiday, apropos of nothing, because a ruler has declared it so. When the policies at your work change suddenly and within one day, because someone in power has decided it must happen. When all the actions of your daily life, the things you can and can’t do, are dictated by someone so high in authority over you that the thought of questioning or resisting is useless.
Well, we don’t live like that in America, we think.
Not in the same way, perhaps. But we live in an uncontrollable world that is bigger than us, as much as we want to forget that we do. We can predict hurricanes and snowstorms and tornadoes, but we can’t stop them coming. Ever. We cannot un-make a pandemic. We can’t un-make cancer or stop death from having its way.
We insulate ourselves from this, of course. We live on social media, we try to control aging and illness, we turn inward for answers to the questions we have. In a million ways, we try to draw the borders of our universe and control what moves and lives therein.
But we can’t.
Usually, it’s death or tragedy that jars us into that realization—that bolt from the blue, the reminder that you are subject to impossibly large forces beyond your control. Sometimes it’s a moment in nature, or a sudden sense of smallness. Almost always, it’s uncomfortable—even painful.
But the early Christians were not perturbed by this. They accepted as a matter of fact that they were subject to authorities, to the whims of those in power, to a world outside their control. They acknowledged that they had to “endure the dark shadow of death,” that kings needed to be calmed, that only God could uphold his priests and his people in the face of brutality, sorrow, madness, and death.
Something that has struck me, in the pandemic and the weirdness of these past two years, is the desperate desire for life to go back to ‘normal’. As though normal is expected, or what we are owed. As though we are unprepared to live in a world where inconvenience is a matter of course and where factors over which we have no control influence and alter our everyday lives.
But those who keep close to God know what the world really is. Know how unfathomable the course of our lives can be. Know that although our lives are small and brief, cosmic forces play out in them: darkness and light, good and evil. And, more than anything, recognize that it is in such a world that God matters profoundly,as the only One who can save us from the greatest and deepest dark.
Lord, mark our days, and protect us from everything we’ve shielded ourselves from understanding.