John Darnielle is the founder, frontman, lead singer, and song writer for one of my more favourite bands, the Mountain Goats. Many of their songs and albums are deeply autobiographical, and I adore their 2005 album The Sunset Tree. Its songs process what growing up was like for Darnielle with his mother, sister, and his abusive stepfather.
I was introduced to the Mountain Goats by the writer and thinker John Green. After writing three well-received young-adult novels, Green found himself struggling to write his next book. He kept coming back to experiences he’d had after finishing university. Green worked for several months as a chaplain-intern at a hospital primarily with young people who had cancer and with their families. Every attempt to write a book based in part on what he’d witnessed at that time seemed to falter. He’s spoken about the deep solace he found in listening to The Sunset Tree, and especially in the song “This Year.” Here’s its chorus:
I am going to make it through this year
if it kills me
I am going to make it through this year
if it kills me
Half funny, half serious, a bit worrying, and full of a very gritty determination.
I sang that song a lot in my car the month I began at the Nativity. To be clear: not as a reflection on all of you wonderful people! I sang it because I felt like there was too much. Starting on February 1st in a new community, meeting people, forming relationships. Ash Wednesday and signing the documents for buying our house on February 13th. Taking possession on the 15th, and starting to clean and paint. Vestry on the 17th. My arms aching at the altar, barely able to hold them up for the Eucharistic Prayer after hours of ‘cutting’ with a paintbrush around ceilings (No one wants me to have the paint-roller: “First Coat Matthew” is my well-earned nickname). Packing. The actual moving in. I changed the lyrics: “I am going to make it through this month / if it kills me”
Sing-screaming that song at the top of my voice in the car helped. What I was going through wasn’t anything like what John Darnielle went through, was different again from what John Green went through. I don’t know what makes the song so resonant for Stephen Colbert, but I loved seeing him sing it with the Mountain Goats when he had them on his show.
The final chorus that ends the song is introduced with the line “There will be feasting and dancing / in Jerusalem next year.” You see, at the end of the Passover Seder, it’s customary for those gathered to say “Next year in Jerusalem.” Next year we’ll gather to keep this feast in the promised land. Next year the messiah will have come and reunited us. Next year all that we’ve hoped for will be really ours. For Darnielle, singing this autobiographical song that mentions earlier that he’s seventeen—next year he’ll be out of his home, in college, newly emancipated. Darnielle offers a dedication of sorts in the album’s liner notes:
Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940–2004): may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.
Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:
you are going to make it out of there alive
you will live to tell your story
never lose hope
This song in its fierce determination is, to my ears, much more optimistic than it first seems. You will live to tell your story. Never lose hope.
It’s been four weeks now that we haven’t been able to gather at the Nativity. This coming Sunday is one we all look forward to: waving our palms as we sing and process, ducking away from the young people who use them for sword fights afterward, the beauty of the red of Holy Week, getting a palm cross or three to take home at the door (and folk telling me with confidence that it’s not one of the ones they made). And this year, it’s going to be different.
We don’t know when we’ll be able to gather in person again. We don’t know how things will evolve during this pandemic. But not only will we live to tell our story, we have already been raised to new life in Jesus Christ. If we had been able to gather this Sunday, we would have heard these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” (Isaiah 50.7—8)
God helps us today, even as God points us to what God’s glorious future looks like—and invites us to join. God is near to us especially in our grief and sorrow. And God will strengthen us for what lies ahead.
Another reading we would have heard is the telling of the Passion in Matthew’s gospel. Listen to the description of Jesus’s death:
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (Matthew 27.50—51)
We hear the description of cataclysm: of everything that we were used to being torn asunder and changed. The very earth shaking in the fullness of God’s presence. Here’s the part that’s shimmered on the page for me this week; it’s the response of those who were near Jesus as he died:
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. (Matthew 27.54—55)
The centurion—not a Judean, not a disciple, not a follower of God—recognizes in this moment of terror just who Jesus is. It’s clear to him and those with him that everything is changed. And the women who had supported Jesus in his ministry hadn’t deserted him—they were there, at a distance, watching and seeking still to care for him.
I think this part of the passion has stood out to me this year precisely because the world seems in flux. But God is still here. I think I am being drawn to this description because our celebrations look and feel different, like we’re watching from further afield.
God’s love still makes itself visible. Christ’s presence is still in our midst. The Spirit breathes strength and mission into us so that our love pulses in our caring for neighbours—even as we have to look on at one another from a distance, finding new ways to provide for the needs of one another and the world.
May the quiet of this Holy Week lead us into new and deeper contemplations of Christ’s death and resurrection. And may we look to the women who watch and wait, who will act with courage when given opportunity, to learn how to be disciples in this moment.