The Poetry of Lent

How do we speak in worship? What language do we use? Sometimes the best response is silence, awe, and wonder. Sometimes we need to spring to our feet with joy, raise our hands in praise, and clap with the trees of the field. We speak with unscripted words such as “amen” and “praise the Lord” and with scripted but equally sincere phrases such as “thanks be to God” and “hear our prayer.” And sometimes we speak in poetry.

Poetry seems to be a natural fit for the liminal or “in-between” charac- ter of worship. In worship we stand before God but are not yet with God for eternity. In poetic form, words can give voice to emotions and thoughts in ways that spoken prose can’t. Maybe what isn’t said in a poem makes the difference. Poetry has the ability to sink into the soul and speak on its own terms, which is why its meaning and significance may be different for each person. Whatever the reason, poetry and worship seem to be inseparable. Whether it’s the psalms themselves or the singing of a hymn, it is a rare service that does not include some poetic form.

In this issue of RW we offer you a rich abundance of poetry (see “Last Words” on p. 24, “The Three Days” on p. 31, and “It Is Over. It Begins.” on p. 37). We didn’t plan it that way, but when you consider the season of Lent—the journey to the cross, the confusion and desperation of the disciples, the pain and despair of Christ himself, the grief that after three days turned to unimaginable joy—all those intense emotions beg for poetic interpretation.

“Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great and feeling souls.” —Voltaire

Worship time is not real time. In worship the past becomes present, and the present is sometimes suspended in anticipation of the future. Time collapses into itself. As we worship, we somehow need to bring the anticipated future and the actions of the past into a pres- ent reality so when someone asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” we can honestly say, “Yes. Yes, I was there, and I too played a part.” And when we speak of the final resurrection, we should speak of it as something that has already begun in us, not as a far-off day that is yet to come. When poetry is used as commentary on and exegesis of biblical truth, it can help us explore and understand things our minds can’t easily fathom.

As you plan your worship for Lent, consider carefully the words you will choose. Include some of the poetry suggested in this issue, poems written by your own congregants, or other poetic expressions that you find. Leave room for those poems to breathe, to be, so that they can speak to the souls of those who hear them. Also consider incorporating the poetry of the visual arts (see “At the Cross” on p. 18, “From Dark to Sight” on p. 3, “Last Words” on p. 24, “The Three Days” on p. 31, and “It Is Over. It Begins” on p. 37).

But do all this with discipline, never being creative for creativity’s sake. Rather, use poetry and art to help unwrap the beauty, depth, and meaning of Scripture and to transport worshipers to that liminal space where time collapses upon itself and we find ourselves in the presence of the Triune God.

Rev. Joyce Borger is senior editor of Reformed Worship and a resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Reformed Worship 110 © December 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.