It is not news that our society likes to erase death. Erasures are everywhere, down to our very wedding vows that shy from saying “til death do us part.”
Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that she’d learned a mechanism for coping with death: every morning upon awaking, she was supposed to remind herself that she would die and that that was okay. I nodded thoughtfully at her, but it almost immediately occurred to me that this was not a revolutionary technique and that, in fact, I had been doing this week in and week out since I was old enough to profess Christian faith.
One of the great benefits of church-going is that we regularly think about death—famous Biblical deaths (foremost among them Christ’s own), the deaths of those who have gone before, and, valuably, our own. We proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again; we equally proclaim our own. And it is more than just okay—it is with the promise of ultimate fulfillment that we die.
I certainly don’t claim to speak for all Christian churches, but in my experience of mainstream denominational worship, I can say that this proclaiming of our own deaths occurs most frequently in the hymns we sing. To be sure, scripture provides the fundamental understanding of death, but it is the hymns that allow us to actively affirm it week in and week out.
Today is Maundy Thursday. Technically, we are celebrating the last supper and Christ’s commandment (maundatum=command) that we love one another as he has loved us. But beautiful as this commandment is, our celebration has a somber tone, for we know what lies ahead on Good Friday. Our hymns in the next couple of days turn specifically to Christ’s death: “O sacred head now wounded”; “Alas and did my savior bleed”; “Ah, Holy Jesus.”
But lately I’ve been haunted by a specific erasure that, to my mind, is absolutely pertinent to Holy Week. The hymn “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” no longer appears in the most recent edition of the Lutheran hymnal, though it was there as recently as the previous edition (the green hymnal, for those of you Lutherans). As you’ll see, it not only offers a profound vision of our own deaths, but it is, in fact, a poem with its own literary integrity. Watch for the penultimate line of the hymn where the choice of “red” comes as an absolutely perfect—and breathtaking—image. Enjoy!
O Love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean’s depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light that followest all my way
I yield me flick’ring torch to thee
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.