“A Word That Would Light Up The Night”

Listening to Nick Cave’s Ghosteen in Advent

This one comes to us from our friend Robbie Sapunarich.

As a relative newcomer to Anglicanism, I’ve found Advent, while not totally unfamiliar, has been welcome and refreshing. I also deeply appreciate a phrase I read in various places that seems popular in Anglican circles: “All may, some should, none must.” It’s a principle that, at first glance, seems to respect individual conscience and, dare I say, the diversity of Christian experience.

That said, it’s also been strange to see the contentiousness that the faithful sometimes bring to this season. Some admonish personal observance of this part of the liturgical calendar as a form of resistance to the relentless commercialization of our broader culture. Self-described “Advent snobs” make an effort to repent of their pretensions and urge us to break out the Kenny G records post-haste in opposition to the bleakness of our news cycles and political polarization.

Coming from a church background where Advent is merely the weeks leading up to Christmas (and we listened to a lot of Kenny G), there’s no shortage of Advent hymns I’ve never been exposed to. So when I finally gave a listen to Ghosteen, the most recent album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, I didn’t expect to find an expression of longing and expectation in the midst of darkness so potent that you could almost call it an Advent album.

Written wholly in the years since the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son in 2015, the album feels equal parts hopeful and haunted. In the first track, “Spinning Song,” Cave repeats these words:

Peace will come
Peace will come
Peace will come in time

A time will come
A time will come
A time will come for us

Which leads into the second track, “Bright Horses,” where he sings in the second verse,

And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something
And we are all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are
Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire
And the fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord
And everyone is hidden and everyone is cruel
And there is no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools
And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall
Is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all

Cave’s lyrics express the longing of every heart that feels sick and tired, that is discontent with the world as it is. We hide our true selves and show cruelty to one another. Tyrants and fools dominate our public and private lives. And what is the “little white shape” that dances? According to one review, the suffix “-een” in “Ghosteen” anglicizes an Irish expression denoting “something small, but also something benevolent.” References to ghosts and spirits permeate the record. Perhaps we could infer that “the little white shape” is the ghost of his lost son, whose absence is almost felt as a presence that cannot be taken away. It’s a bleak image of this present darkness.

But as the melody turns back to the instrumental refrain of the song’s opening,

This world is plain to see
It don’t mean we can’t believe
In something and any way
My baby’s coming back now
On the next train
I can hear the whistle blowing
I can hear the mighty roar
I can hear the horses prancing
In the pastures of the Lord
Oh the train is coming
And I’m standing here to see
And it’s bringing my baby
Right back to me
Well there are some things
That are hard to explain
But my baby’s coming home now
On the 5.30 train

Despite the plainness of our world and its apparent brokenness, we can still have hope. We await a better world, that comes with a “mighty roar.” And the fields which seem barren of divine presence are in truth the “pastures of the Lord.” And the speaker’s baby is returning, and the speaker watches for this train.

Or consider the second verse of “Sun Forest”:

And a man called Jesus, he promised he would leave us with a word that would light up the night, oh the night, but the stars hang from threads and blink off one by one and it isn’t any fun no it isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be with a man mad with grief and on each side a thief and everybody hanging from a tree, from a tree, and everybody hanging from a tree.

I know nothing of Cave’s spiritual inclinations (although others do), and I don’t presume to impute any intending religious meaning to the album. To appropriate Cave’s creation to make a theological point without honoring the grief and sorrow along with the wonder and joy therein would be to do violence to his work. I commend it to you regardless of any spiritual significance I might find in it. But I also believe his words, regardless of their intent, are a profound example of the emotions and experiences to which the season of Advent is addressed.

And I also think Cave’s words are worth considering when we encounter the push and pull of controversies around the observance of Advent. Such debates can sound like mere dogmatic infighting to those listening who simply need the promise the season offers. To people “sick and tired of seeing things as they are,” liturgical debates as such can ring hollow, and risk rendering abstract the true comfort in the story they’re fighting over.

For one grappling with loss, or frustration at the tyrants in the world, Advent opens a space in which to lament, and to yearn, for a better world and a “word that would light up the night.” While the “Advent police” can seem severe, there is also a deep grace in allowing the Church, whose expressions can devolve into sentimentalized joy or exacting demands for personal improvement, to be a place that acknowledges and embraces the grief and longing many feel.

Regardless of how we observe the season—or how others’ observances annoy us—what’s final and settled is the word that lights up the night, that came from the man who was mad with grief as he hung from a tree: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Image credits: St. James’ Church, Yves Lorson

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One response to ““A Word That Would Light Up The Night””

  1. jb says:

    thanks for this: “Regardless of how we observe the season—or how others’ observances annoy us—what’s final and settled is the word that lights up the night” —- and great music too

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