My life is measured in votive candles.
Imelda graciously handed me the box of little candles for the vigil, her eyes full of compassion. The flickering beneath those little blue holders scattered the darkness that night. I could not have known then that in my penultimate year in Memorial Church, I would dip into that box yet again in hopes of scattering the darkness and dust of what was left of the World Trade Center towers.
In June of 1997 under the towering arches of Grace Cathedral a bishop laid hands on me with the words, “Give your Holy Spirit to Maurice and make him a priest in your church.” Some teach that the utterance of those words leaves an indelible mark inscribed on the soul. I felt it some time afterwards, celestial fire notwithstanding.
That cross shaped mark—a holy deepening of the scars of centuries of violence and community grief placed on my soul as a boy in the late sixties as armored personnel carriers bearing National Guardsmen made their way through burning black neighborhoods across the country, including mine—that mark signifying something newly called priesthood was to be deepened a year later in October of 1998.
One student after another pushed into my office in the basement of Stanford Memorial Church, explaining how they could not work without collapsing in a puddle of tears because someone they could relate to, a young, gay college student drunken with violent blows, met his cold and lonesome death tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. In their grief, a massive grief that over the next several days was to swell to hundreds of light-bearing mourners filing into Memorial Church for a vigil, I saw my own history.
Even though dementia has left him mute, my father’s Alabama Baptist drawl still echoes with stories of how church folk used to dismiss service early so that they could watch a black body hang from a tree. I never understood what compelled him to return to those dreadful stories year after year. And it would take years to understand why those conversations would end with him staring into the distance with a shake of his head and a sigh, “Well, Son, it won’t be long before the Son of Man comes on the clouds to wrap this thang up.” Decades later would find me standing in an airport watching the endless loop of a black man choking—this time on the ground—gasping “I can’t breathe.” I’m afraid I may have startled the woman next to me when I belted out my favorite Advent hymn.
Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold him,
Pierced, and nailed him to a tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.†
Looking into the faces of communities stifled by violence and choking with grief etches me ever more deeply with the sign of the cross. I am a marked man who stands at the altar year after year raising the body and blood of the Slaughtered One with the audacity to proclaim that love still lives and reigns forever and ever. And there is a new world fashioned by love yet to come.
So, too, the candles. They flicker gently whenever love is crushed. But watching and waiting is not enough. My soul wants to reach beyond the blue glass and touch the world to come stirring within that dancing flame.
Dream of a land my soul is from
I hear a hand stroke on a drum
Elegant boy, beautiful girl
Dancing for joy elegant whirl
Shades of delight, cocoa hue
Rich as the night afro blue*
I was born when the world was on fire. A new world struggles to be born, stirring within this tiny flame. Standing shoulder to shoulder with my sisters and my brothers, so help me God, I want to reach out and grasp it—even if it burns.
†Charles Wesley, d. 1788, “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending”
*Mongo Santamaria, “Afro Blue”
©D. Maurice Charles, All rights reserved