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.
Sometimes what’s most interesting in a psalm is the silence.
Poetry is a compact medium for expression. It cannot say everything. This is one of its charms. Poets pick their moments. They imply or allude. The reader fills in the gaps. We see ourselves in the places where the poet writes nothing, where we must fill the lines with our lives.
Which makes me wonder about the silence in this poem. The psalm is framed as a thanksgiving psalm, grateful to God for restoring the psalmist to life. The first five verses act as a prelude, setting up the themes. They culminate in the beautiful line from verse 5: “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
So it’s important that we attend to the silence, to the moments when no words fit. Silence is as important to ministry as play, and all too often we are sorely bereft of either.
What we do not know, what the psalmist does not say is how long that night actually lasted. She sets up the situation: once firm in faith, she experienced God’s sudden absence, plunging her into despair. If a manuscript had somehow lopped the psalm off at verse 10, we would be left with a desperate cry: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” Instead, the psalmist leaps from abject cry to joyful song: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
Today, the leap speaks to me. In the concrete, everyday experience of living, that leap can cover one night, one week, one month, one year—or more. But no matter how long it takes, we hold fast to the promise that our mourning will turn to dancing.
There’s a theological word for this transformation. Brother Roger of Taizé calls it “transfiguration.” In the book God Is Love Alone, Brother Roger speaks of a time when, as a young person, he suffered from tuberculosis and a serious relapse. He calls this “a childhood or an adolescence that had been humiliated.”1 What slowly emerged from this time of sickness was both his vocation to live in monastic, self-giving community and the realization that “Christ can bring out of these trials a great boldness to create in God, to run the risks of faith. He passes through our limits, failures, and inner nights. He transforms them, he transfigures them throughout our lifetime.”2 This transfiguration does not happen once, but multiple times, over and over again, as we are slowly shaped into the people that God has always desired for us to be, the people God created us to be. “An imperceptible inner change, the transfiguration of our being goes forward step by step.”3
This transfiguration is the movement of the resurrection—little uprisings of life in the midst of the daily sense of death that can sometimes surround us. But the transfiguration happens neither fully in the crucifixion of sorrow nor the resurrection of elation. It happens in the tension between the two, in the hours, days, weeks, months in the middle. It happens in “that long Saturday between your death and the rising day/When no one wrote a word, and wondered, ‘is this the end?’”4
So it’s important that we attend to the silence, to the moments when no words fit. Silence is as important to ministry as play, and all too often we are sorely bereft of either. In fact, it’s not that we shouldn’t sing exuberantly or dance till our legs fall off. It’s that those moments ring out with greater reality when they emerge from the rich, dark soil of the wordless, Holy Saturday of waiting. Then, “my soul may praise you, [O God] and not be silent.” (Psalm 30:12)
NOTE: At Taizé, singing and silence are intimately paired. Consider incorporating times of silence into your worship. For some guidance, here are articles from Taizé:
ON YOUNG ADULTS AND PRAYER
PREPARING A SIMPLE PRAYER
PREPARING A WELCOMING SPACE
Insyderz, Mourning into Dancing – Speaking of dancing until our legs fall off, here’s my favorite version of verse 11 and 12. What better than 90s ska to move from mournful brass to feet-stomping swing?
Robbie Seay, Psalm 30:4-5 – For a more down-tempo look at the transfiguration from weeping to joy, here’s Robbie Seay’s version of verses 4 and 5 from the Verses Project. I love the way he lingers over the phrase “joy comes,” by extending it into a mantra: “joy comes, with the morning comes. And joy will come, joy will come.” A chord chart can be found here.
Mavis Staples, We Shall Not Be Moved – It’s always instructive for me to learn from those who have endured and continue to endure. This song became important during the civil rights era of the last century. Protest songs like this one take on different characters in different situations. Different phrases are often inserted at the beginning of the verses, making it wonderfully difficult to pin down a definitive set of lyrics. Words that, for the psalmist, were spoken arrogantly in prosperity, become, In the hands of those under oppression, a song of radical, confident trust—the kind of trust that gets us through Holy Saturday. We shall not be moved.
Taizé, In The Lord – This beautiful chant expresses the heart of waiting. Psalm 30 begins and ends with gratitude, and the lyrics here reflect that, while reminding us that God is always near. This would be a nice chant to use as a framing device for reading this psalm in worship.
1. I read this excerpt from God Is Love Alone in Brother Roger, Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006, 2012), 88.
4. From the song “Valleys Fill First” by Caedmon’s Call, written by Aaron Tate and Ed Cash.
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.