Lent, Week 5: The Thick Darkness Where God Was

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Like any production, we start with Act I.

I’ve thought about Moses a lot in the last year—bent and grey, hunched over some cut of stretched goat skin or the last bit of papyrus he’d been carrying around since the day he headed out from Egypt.

We think of him tall and scraggly over the red sea, arms cruciform. We think of him at the front of history’s most famous caravan. We think of him grabbing a snake by the neck as it hardens into a staff again. We think of him striking rocks, turning water iron in blood or sweet with a branch, heading home from a day’s work with arms full of manna.

But until this year, I didn’t think of him like this: scratching out letters in patterns of parallelism and rhythm—the Hebrew way. I didn’t think of how, after all was said and done—right before God tucked him into the earth like a father with his sleepy son—scraggly Moses took up poetry.

I don’t know if David found it. Maybe some servant boy unearthed it from a dusty urn. But somewhere between “The Lord is my Shepherd” and “Your word is a lamp to my feet” comes Moses’ ancient voice from his Yahweh-dug wilderness bed.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.

When I first decided to take on a lyrical exposition of Psalm 90, I knew research would be no small thing. Theological precision is important to me always, and always when writing. Thus the first step of this project for me was to sit down with fifteen pastors and theologians and priests and professors and rabbis to discuss anything regarding Psalm 90: its history, context, structure, etc. This required, of course, that I move past the first two verses of the Psalm.

So: Act II.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”

I spent a rainy night in Nashville on a Zoom call with my cousin Ben at 6:00 am in South Asia, where he loves and serves a Muslim community. He gave me a more literal translation of the Hebrew here: “You crush humanity into dust”—Jack and the beanstalk like. I wonder if Moses felt the grit in his bones as he scratched those letters.

Moses didn’t observe Lent the way we do, with a priest’s thumbprint cross on his forehead. He knew the heat of Yahweh’s palm against his face, the burn of his back passing by, the way God’s voice doesn’t crack. He didn’t follow a line of congregants to the front kneelers; he drew near to the thick darkness where God was, while the rest of the people drew back (Ex. 20:21).

God drew near, with those divine eyes we dare not meet in dreams that are yet our only hope, full of terror and mercy both.

Hannah Hubin

One of those folks in the back—the far back, a couple thousand Old Testament cubits back—was, I think, T. S. Eliot, who writes in “The Hollow Men” of the divine eyes he “dare not meet in dreams.” He describes in his own poetic detail, not unlike the poetry of Moses, how he wears “such deliberate disguises” to hide himself from the horror of holiness. I can see him standing far off, hiding from the eyes of divine love, covered in a myriad of costumes like a 5th grade Halloween party without the candy corn.

But Lent doesn’t take kindly to the fine art of costume design.

You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.

And Moses, who might just know more about Lent than all of us combined, pushes his poem in full Hebrew force to the wrath of God, the brevity of man, the vanity of vanities, the terror of those eyes: verse after verse for me to exposit and describe and elaborate in lyric. One thing is for sure: Eliot’s disguises aren’t going to make it.

As late fall edged to Christmas, I finished the draft text: 3 acts and 19 individual parts: 12 songs, 5 spoken texts, and 2 instrumentals—a verse-by-verse exposition, moving through Psalm 90, with a bit of Eliot interwoven. There’s a lot of lament, because, I think, lament is a good bit of what Moses meant. And there is wonder, and there is fear, and there is the terror of the divine eyes, and there is the thick darkness where God was, and there is dust. There’s a lot of dust.

There’s also Act III.

Moses didn’t observe Easter the way we do, but he observed God in ways we can’t—at least, not now. So when he asks the Lord to

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil,

he didn’t need to beat Peter to the tomb to know something of resurrection. He knew that drawing near to the darkness of Sinai meant drawing near to hope. So did Eliot, when he writes that he will remain “Sightless, unless/The eyes reappear/…The hope only/Of empty men.” Those holy eyes—they are God’s toward us. They are grace toward us.

As we edge closer and closer to Holy Week, the seven bands who have generously labored to set my text to music are finalizing their arrangements and performance. Last week, Ella Mine sent me a demo track to a song that lies near the end of the production, where she sings with the fierceness few can muster:

Thou art my fear
and thou art my only claim;
the face of terror
and the face of mercy are the same.
Either way, my Lord,
don’t relent your claim.

Two years after publishing “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot made his way from the back of the crowd and up to Sinai, baptized into the Church of England. Sometime after he put down his psalmist pen, Moses was led up the top of another mountain by the Lord. God drew near, with those divine eyes we dare not meet in dreams that are yet our only hope, full of terror and mercy both. He showed Moses the land, and then he tucked him into the earth. And Moses, who knew so much of the dusty, ashen, Lenten life, knew also, I think, something of what comes next.

ALL THE WRECKED LIGHT: a lyrical exposition of Psalm 90 by Hannah Hubin will be presented at Christ Presbyterian Church in Brentwood on Holy Tuesday, March 30th, at 7:00 pm, featuring performances by Dennis Parker, Cardiff State, Ella Mine, St. Dawn in Slumber, Wild Harbors, Justin Schumacher, and Carousel Rogues.

In-person reservations to the masked and distanced performance are available here. You’ll also be able to tune into the livestream at the Rabbit Room’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.


2 Comments

  1. Don Quintana

    @donaldojose

    There is only one thing worse than a fifth grade Halloween party with no candy corn, and that’s a grown-up party with invisible masks.  But come to think of it, that’s the only type gathering I’ve been to.  If we want to be brave enough to gaze into the divine mixture of terror and mercy we must come without our masks – with naked faces.  In fact, we must come with naked souls.  Kind of like Adam and Eve before the fall.

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