Two Spacecraft, a Blind Bluesman and a Cold Tomb

Blind Willie Johnson seemed to know early on that his future lay at the crossroads of two vocations. He built a cigar box guitar for himself when he was only five and told his father that proclaiming the things of God to the masses was his desire. He grew to become a preacher, and yes, a bluesman too. The story goes that, when he was seven, his father beat Willie’s unfaithful stepmother; she took bitter revenge by throwing lye in the young boy’s face, permanently blinding him. Throughout the rest of his life, locked in a darkness fashioned by the fury of others, Willie sang songs of God, redemption and a much better future.

In his pantheon of verses and tunes, one remains my personal favorite: “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).” Often re-recorded by other artists, none compare to the original 1927 version. The title is taken from an English hymn from the 1700’s describing the agony of Jesus as he prayed before going to the cross, but Willie Johnson’s song wordlessly encompasses the entire descent of Christ into the depths of suffering, isolation and death. The guitarist Ry Cooder called the song “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.”

Over the last few years, I have made it a tradition to listen to the song on the day before Easter because it reminds me of what that Saturday before the first Easter felt like for the followers of Christ. The Messiah was dead, and with Him perished hope, comfort and promise.

Since we know the end of the story, we often rush past any thought of that Saturday. We want to jump from the pain of Friday to the joy of Sunday without taking the in-between into account. The biblical text offers only brief detail about what happened on that day before the Resurrection. Matthew explains how the Pharisees asked for guards to be placed at the tomb (27:62-66), but there is no clear mention of the disciples’ activities on Saturday except for a line from the gospel of Luke: “On the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment” (23:56). It was a Saturday of rest. No work was performed. No major task could be undertaken to occupy one’s time. The Sabbath was a mark of faith. To rest on the Sabbath was to acknowledge that God provides for His children; one’s own hand could never produce everything needed for life. Yet it seemed that God had indeed given, only to take away cruelly.

On that Saturday, hearts were broken. Mourning had just begun. Confusion, shock and despair overwhelmed the followers of Christ. They were waiting, not for Sunday, but for an end to the pain.

We all face a Saturday.

We face the in-between time.

We go through times when we compare “what is” to “what we expected” and are left speechless at the difference between the two extremes. Moments seem to stretch into agonizingly long periods of silence and pain. Perhaps you find yourself there now. You may be crying out to God, asking Him to work, to move and to show Himself, but you receive no answer. You may be waiting upon the glimmer of hope, the good report or the lifting of the pressure weighing you down right now, yet no relief comes.

The night is dark. The ground is cold. The grave is silent.

It is the Saturday experience.

In fact, one might view the entirety of creation as having a Saturday experience, for all physical existence is in the in-between. A low and mournful cry rises up from the collective brokenness of the ages for “we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). The farthest corners of existence long for complete redemption. It seems only fitting that recordings of “Dark Was the Night” were placed on board the two Voyager spacecraft as examples of sounds from Earth. At this moment, an old blues tune about the “Man of sorrows” drifts along in the dark silence beyond the rim of our solar system as all of creation waits expectantly for the restoration and realignment of all things under Him (Acts 3:21; Ephesians 1:10). A cold tomb, two spacecraft, a blind man from Texas and the rest of the cosmos point toward the suspended season of the in-between.

We all live in a Saturday universe.

Just as the tomb of Jesus was not the final word on the matter, so too our Saturday won’t last forever. If you listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s song to the very end, you’ll find a hint of a better, coming day in the form of a tiny, bright end note. It is a note of resolution, but also a note of promise, a note of a song yet to be sung.

Saturday isn’t forever; Sunday will dawn.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

To hear “Dark Was the Night…” click here.

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