Holy Wednesday: A Poem / Joshua Alan Sturgill

Through the window of a Church
I saw a sparrow killed. The Raven
standing on the sparrow’s neck struck
the heart and broke

the wing. This little terror broke the Great
and Holy Wednesday vigil. Casually
over his black, sparrow’s-length knife, the Raven
sees grey winter grass, cars pass
cracks along the asphalt. I own
what I observe, carried in through

a window: my Sparrow, my Raven. The world
latently angry, violent, like the ocean
under northern ice. I will own
the Unction spilled
over every broken wing

During Holy Week, 2014, I attended the Unction at Holy Trinity Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was singing with the choir, and I happened to be in the row closest to the Church’s northeast door and window. From this position, I had a clear but limited view of the back parking lot.

During the Unction service, blessed oil is distributed to the congregation with prayers for healing from physical and psychological illnesses. So I was thinking about healing and the seven readings and seven prayers said before reception of the oil, when I caught a dark motion out of the window. As I turned, into that very small space—framed on either side by the curtains of the window, so that it was like some violent stage presentation—a huge Raven landed on the pavement with a sparrow caught in its beak. The Raven threw the sparrow down onto its back and stabbed at it twice in succession, first hitting the sparrow’s wing as it tried to escape, then piercing the sparrow squarely in the chest. The sparrow stopped moving immediately, and the Raven, with one foot on the sparrow’s neck, looked around and seemed almost uninterested in what it had just done.

If there had been any kind of contest, I think I would have tried to open the door and intervene. But the violence happened so fast—two birds struggling, then one dead—that I could only feel surprise and confusion, then shock. On the little stage formed by the chance linear positions of Raven, window and observer, I felt as if I’d witnessed some kind of whole-cosmos drama in miniature, played out in a few moments of time. It made me question what was the point of a church service for healing when nature didn’t even care, wasn’t asking or waiting to be healed. The sparrow was quiet and the Raven was quiet after their confrontation. Equilibrium was restored—by death. So why should human beings want something else? Why should we believe in or waste time on the idea that God has a better solution than mere equilibrium? Where is the source of Christian hope—not just the things we hope for, but the origin of Hope itself? The contrast between what we ask of God (Life) and what we observe all around us at every moment (Death) is more profoundly mysterious than we realize. Life and Death are not opposites, not a balanced pair. One is real, the other a negation of reality. One is a true description of true Being, while the other will fade and disappear—like a measure of music is caught up and fades into the Symphony of which it is only a part.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill


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