Canticles: Psalm 114—Tremble

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Have you ever been so full of emotion that your body shook? The excitement or anxiety or laughter quivered like lightning in your bones. Your muscles became a thousand eager squirrels, twitchy tails welcoming spring. I most often feel like this when I’m faced with the unknown: Will that medical test come out okay? Will our baby be healthy? Will this world ever be free of violence?

Does Easter make you feel like that?

No shame if it doesn’t. But I wonder if it does.

Most of our resurrection songs ring a note of triumph. Jesus conquered the grave. Christ the Lord is risen today. The strong steady downbeats and the soaring brass march us toward victory. The emotion they convey is confidence.

Our decorations here in the west pop with the colors of spring. Pinks and purples and yellows abound. Something of the Easter Bunny softness invades our clothing choices. Our decorations evoke gentle beauty and new life.

But does Easter make us tremble?

No shame if we don’t. I cannot and do not desire to legislate our emotions. But I do want to keep the door open for a certain amount of holy, mysterious fear.

The lectionary psalm for this Sunday morning was Psalm 118, about which I already wrote a post last week. But the lectionary (at least the PCUSA lectionary) also chooses readings for Easter Evening. There, it lists Psalm 114.

God is on the loose! God, who cannot be confined or contained, who just might draw us out beyond all we know and can even imagine—that God is alive and among us. That God tears our triumphant confidence to shreds and makes hash of our gentle pastel prints. Easter is out of our control.

When I first read through the psalm, I couldn’t help but scratch my head. What did this short, eight-verse blurb have to do with Easter? For 21st Century, Western Christians, the connections are not immediately apparent. Psalm 114 reads like a questionable Cliff’s Notes version of the exodus journey. The people of Israel escape Egypt, crossing over the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14). Years later, as they enter the Promised Land, they cross over the Jordan (Joshua 3). While on their journey, God displays power in multiple ways, including drawing water from a rock so the people do not die of thirst (Exodus 17).

To understand the Easter connections, it helps to know that early Christ-followers sometimes thought of the resurrection as a new exodus, freeing them from slavery to sin. Jesus’ death and resurrection did occur, in fact, at the end of the Passover celebration, the Jewish feast commemorating the exodus. This is why, in fact, Easter is more commonly known the world over as “Pascha,” a word derived from latinizing the Hebrew for “Passover.” Because of this connection, Baptism was related both to sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection and to crossing through the waters of the Sea of Reeds and the Jordan. The barren rock becomes a spring of living water, refreshing us with new life.

But what about the dancing mountains and the trembling earth? This is the imagery in Psalm 114 that caught my eye.

The Gospel of Matthew records that a great earthquake struck when Jesus’ rose from the grave. This earthly trembling mirrors the emotions of people who encounter the Risen Jesus. The soldiers guarding his tomb “shook and became like dead men” “for fear of him.” (Matthew 28:4) When the women first leave the tomb in the Gospel of Mark, they flee in “terror and amazement.” (Mark 16:8, see also Luke 24:5) When Jesus first appears to all of the disciples in Luke, they are “startled and terrified.” (Luke 24:37)

Have the two thousands years between us and that glorious morning dulled our senses?

In an extended essay in her provocative collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard wonders at the blasé manner in which we worship. She writes:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” 1

Similarly, commenting on the shorter ending of Mark, in which the gospel ends with the women’s fear and trembling, Donald Juel exults:

“Jesus is out! On the loose, on the same side of the door as the women and the readers…He cannot be confined by the tomb or limited by death…The Gospel offers little promise that we have control of our destiny…but perhaps this is just where the promise resides…God will be put off neither by our failures, nor infidelity, nor by our most sophisticated interpretive schemes.” 2

God is on the loose! God, who cannot be confined or contained, who just might draw us out beyond all we know and can even imagine—that God is alive and among us. That God tears our triumphant confidence to shreds and makes hash of our gentle pastel prints. Easter is out of our control. With the soldiers and the women and the disciples and the mountains, we tremble.

Song Recommendations

African-American Spiritual, Were You There? Sung by Paul Robeson – Paul Robeson’s slow, shattering baritone rumbles through the lyrics of this spiritual. Oftentimes, we sing Were You There in the days before Easter, and forget about it soon after. But some traditions add a resurrection verse to the hymn,

“Were you there when He rose up from the grave?
Were you there when He rose up from the grave?
O, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when He rose up from the grave?”

OR “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?”

It would be beautiful to sing this song at the beginning of worship, reminding us of the inseparability of the cross and the resurrection. The song could be sung slowly at first, and quietly. Then, by the end, louder and louder.

Delirious?, Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble? – This stirring piece from the UK band Delirious? explicitly links the trembling of the earth to the trembling of the people, and the glory of the resurrection with God’s desire to trample on injustice.

Delirious?, My Glorious – Another one from Delirious? The world is shaking once again. This song highlights how God cannot be contained or confined. God is bigger than the air I breathe. God changes the old to new, bringing life from a dead rock.

Rich Mullins, Calling Out Your Name – This song is a slow build. It begins with the trembling sounds of the hammered dulcimer. In the middle, the drums snap, waking us up with a crack. Mullins feels the earth “tremble with the rumbling of the buffalo hooves.” God takes the world by its corners and shakes it forward and free to run wild with hope. Mullins’ poetry is nearly unmatched. Reading it causes me to quiver. This song may not be easily sung in congregation, but I find that it reminds me of the Resurrection more than almost any other tune. Use it for a devotion, or as a prelude or postlude.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1982), 52-3.
2. Donald H. Juel, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 120.

 


Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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