This is My Body, Given for You
In Jason Isbell’s song, “Elephant,” a man named Andy describes his ministration to an erstwhile lover who is dying from cancer. Seeking neither praise nor pity, he disinterestedly accompanies her from bar stool to death bed as she endures the agony of both the disease and the side-effects of her (ultimately futile) treatment:
She said Andy, you’re better than your past
Winked at me and drained her glass
Cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore
We don’t know anything about Andy’s past, other than what is implied in the lyric. But his dying friend tells us that he has become a better person through selflessly helping her to bear the burden of her illness. Rather than to take her to bed as in healthier days (“She don’t have the spirit for that now”), he now puts her to bed with no expectation other than attending to the needs that she cannot meet on her own.
She said “Andy you’re taking me home”
But I knew she planned to sleep alone
I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from her floor
Andy gives himself to her without expectation of anything in return. He girds his loins, as it were, and washes her feet. And we learn that he is her last authentic companion as she nears her inevitable death:
Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone
So I’d sing her classic country songs
She’d get high and sing along
She don’t have much voice to sing with now
Her family were around her, but they could not accompany her. They were not able to show her the self-effacing empathy that Andy does. As her voice fades, Andy sings her song for her. He is not just beside her, but rather gives himself to her with neither expectation of reward nor regret of lost time:
I’ve buried her a thousand times, given up my place in line
But I don’t give a damn about that now
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
This is my body, given for you.
Won’t You Keep Watch With Me?
Better known through a 1973 recording by Tanya Tucker (and later by a Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings duet, and a posthumously released Johnny Cash cover), David Allan Coe’s “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” asks a series of questions that probe the margins of devotion of one person to another.
Would you lay with me in a field of stone?
If my needs were strong would you lay with me?
Should my lips grow dry would you wet them dear?
In the midnight hour if my lips were dry?
The object of the inquiry is not clear, and no one answers the questions. Rather, they linger as though to call the listener to question his or her own ability to endure the difficulties that might interrupt—or end—a friendship.
The interviewer raises a series of scenarios in which she needs or desires assistance or even merely companionship. The song seems to be less about the suffering of the interrogator than the ability or willingness of the one being interviewed to stay beside the one who suffers. Are you able to stay beside me to assuage my isolation? Not to fix my problems or cure my ills, but rather to be present with me as I struggle through them?
Would you go away to another land walk a thousand miles through the burning sand?
Wipe the blood away from my dying hand?
If I give myself to you?
Will you suffer my suffering? Will you share my burden? Won’t you stay one hour with me?
The Eternal Ninth Hour
In the crucifixion of our Lord, time was absorbed by eternity, as the temporal Passion on the Cross issued an eternal invitation to come to the foot of the suffering Savior. While the passion ended at the Ninth Hour, neither time nor space can contain the summons that issues from it. Or, as Tom Waits writes in “Down There By the Train”:
There’s a place I know
Where the train goes slow
Where the sinners can be washed
In the blood of the lamb
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow
The invitation is not exclusive to those who have come after the crucifixion, as the harrowing of Hell extends the offer to those who have gone before:
You can hear the whistle
You can hear the bell
From the halls of heaven
To the gates of hell
There’s room for the forsaken
If you’re there on time
You’ll be washed of all your sins
And all of your crimes
Nor are any denied hope, regardless of their sins, or even their complicity in the death of the Savior. The eternal Ninth Hour is the hour of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
There’s no eye for an eye
there’s no tooth for a tooth
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth
I know you will be cared for
I know you will be safe
All the shameful and all of the whores
Even the soldier who pierced the heart of the Lord
Is down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow
The Comedy of Resurrection
This is not to say that there is no cost to boarding the train. To the contrary, its passengers will be mocked and ridiculed, perhaps even persecuted. But though the passage may bring its own trial, the train will not fail to deliver us to its destined end. “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me,” says our Lord. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
With Jesus, we endure the shame, keeping our eyes on the reward that awaits us. At the end of the arduous journey is the joy of Heaven. Or, the words of Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke”:
They can kick dirt in your face
Dress you down, and tell you that your place
Is in the middle, when they hate the way you shine
. . .
Let ‘em laugh while they can
Let ‘em spin, let ‘em scatter in the wind
I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends
And the joke’s on them
On the Third Day, all the Christian paradoxes of death in life, mercy in justice, blessing in suffering, freedom in sacrifice, and eternity in time meet their apotheoses in the comedy of the resurrection, when the tomb is found empty.
He is not here. He is risen. Alleluia.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.
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