Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Altarpiece

(This is one of my first devotional poems, written back in 2002, but never before posted to this blog. It remains one of my favorites.)


 The Altarpiece


In great cathedrals, empty and still

we sat…

Tiny tongues of flame cast feeble shadows

      through the vast, dark room—

      the prayers of the penitent

                                    the mourning

                                                the outcast

We look up, study that vast, ancient work

      that stands now behind the altar—

      its surface still shimmering with the

      sheen of the master’s brush.

O writhing man, pinned on that cruel frame!

      The pain in his face no language can tell—

      even the image bears only

      shadows of the truth.

His hands, though torn, reach out

      in weary, violent embrace—or is it

      the open plea of despair?

A weight greater than that cruel, crossed wood

      was borne on blameless back that day.

Yea, the figure below, his fingers

      still clasped ‘round the offending hammer

      as he scoffs upward—it is a face

      I know too well.  It is my own.

And now the tears come, welling up

      from deep within.  It is a cry

      of mourning, a wail of deepest hope—

      oh, that my sin should demand

      so high a price!

I have been in temples and shrines

      and seen the faces of other gods.

      They are content, blissful, and unaware.

      Basking in their serenity, the world

      slips by to the screams of the children,

      the death-cries of the starving

      as they lie wasted in the street.

      And the gods are unmoved.

No, this is the God for me.

      In agony and torment, I know

      He paid my ransom-price.

      Not in escaping life, but in surrendering

      to the tortures of this shadowland

      did he find peace.  And only there,

      in that twisted, pain-wracked visage,

      can the road of my peace lie.

      For only he understands.

I smile weakly and turn to my dear companion.

      The flickering light sparkles off the tears

      rolling down her cheeks,

      and I know she has met her God again,

      just as I have.

We rise together, silent, and shuffle

      hand-in-hand to the prayer table,

      where we carefully blow out

      the last dying flames.

And the cathedral is dark again.


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