With the dawn of a new church year, we have launched a new feature on our website, a weekly post of poetry that resonates with the lectionary readings for that week (Revised Common Lectionary).
*** Revised Common Lectionary ***
Lectionary Reading: Deuteronomy 34:1-12
The Death of Moses
Moses, who spake with God as with his friend,
And ruled his people with the twofold power
Of wisdom that can dare and still be meek,
Was writing his last word, the sacred name
Unutterable of that Eternal Will
Which was and is and evermore shall be.
Yet was his task not finished, for the flock
Needed its shepherd and the life-taught sage
Leaves no successor; but to chosen men,
The rescuers and guides of Israel,
A death was given called the Death of Grace,
Which freed them from the burden of the flesh
But left them rulers of the multitude
And loved companions of the lonely. This
Was God’s last gift to Moses, this the hour
When soul must part from self and be but soul.
God spake to Gabriel, the messenger
Of mildest death that draws the parting life
Gently, as when a little rosy child
Lifts up its lips from off the bowl of milk
And so draws forth a curl that dipped its gold
In the soft white—thus Gabriel draws the soul.
“Go bring the soul of Moses unto me!”
And the awe-stricken angel answered, “Lord,
How shall I dare to take his life who lives
Sole of his kind, not to be likened once
In all the generations of the earth?”
Then God called Michaël, him of pensive brow
Snow-vest and flaming sword, who knows and acts:
“Go bring the spirit of Moses unto me!”
But Michaël with such grief as angels feel,
Loving the mortals whom they succour, pled:
“Almighty, spare me; it was I who taught
Thy servant Moses; he is part of me
As I of thy deep secrets, knowing them.”
Then God called Zamaël, the terrible,
The angel of fierce death, of agony
That comes in battle and in pestilence
Remorseless, sudden or with lingering throes.
And Zamaël, his raiment and broad wings
Blood-tinctured, the dark lustre of his eyes
Shrouding the red, fell like the gathering night
Before the prophet. But that radiance
Won from the heavenly presence in the mount
Gleamed on the prophet’s brow and dazzling pierced
Its conscious opposite: the angel turned
His murky gaze aloof and inly said:
“An angel this, deathless to angel’s stroke.”
But Moses felt the subtly nearing dark:—
“Who art thou? and what wilt thou?” Zamaël then:
“I am God’s reaper; through the fields of life
I gather ripened and unripened souls
Both willing and unwilling. And I come
Now to reap thee.” But Moses cried,
Firm as a seer who waits the trusted sign:
“Reap thou the fruitless plant and common herb—
Not him who from the womb was sanctified
To teach the law of purity and love.”
And Zamaël baffled from his errand fled.
But Moses, pausing, in the air serene
Heard now that mystic whisper, far yet near,
The all-penetrating Voice, that said to him,
“Moses, the hour is come and thou must die.”
“Lord, I obey; but thou rememberest
How thou, Ineffable, didst take me once
Within thy orb of light untouched by death.”
Then the voice answered, “Be no more afraid:
With me shall be thy death and burial.”
So Moses waited, ready now to die.
And the Lord came, invisible as a thought,
Three angels gleaming on his secret track,
Prince Michaël, Zamaël, Gabriel, charged to guard
The soul-forsaken body as it fell
And bear it to the hidden sepulchre
Denied for ever to the search of man.
And the Voice said to Moses: “Close thine eyes.”
He closed them. “Lay thine hand upon thine heart,
And draw thy feet together.” He obeyed.
And the Lord said, “O spirit! child of mine!
A hundred years and twenty thou hast dwelt
Within this tabernacle wrought of clay.
This is the end: come forth and flee to heaven.”
But the grieved soul with plaintive pleading cried,
“I love this body with a clinging love:
The courage fails me, Lord, to part from it.”
“O child, come forth! for thou shalt dwell with me
About the immortal throne where seraphs joy
In growing vision and in growing love.”
Yet hesitating, fluttering, like the bird
With young wing weak and dubious, the soul
Stayed. But behold! upon the death-dewed lips
A kiss descended, pure, unspeakable—
The bodiless Love without embracing Love
That lingered in the body, drew it forth
With heavenly strength and carried it to heaven.
But now beneath the sky the watchers all,
Angels that keep the homes of Israel
Or on high purpose wander o’er the world
Leading the Gentiles, felt a dark eclipse:
The greatest ruler among men was gone.
And from the westward sea was heard a wail,
A dirge as from the isles of Javanim,
Crying, “Who now is left upon the earth
Like him to teach the right and smite the wrong?”
And from the East, far o’er the Syrian waste,
Came slowlier, sadlier, the answering dirge:
“No prophet like him lives or shall arise
In Israel or the world for evermore.”
But Israel waited, looking toward the mount,
Till with the deepening eve the elders came
Saying, “His burial is hid with God.
We stood far off and saw the angels lift
His corpse aloft until they seemed a star
That burnt itself away within the sky.”
The people answered with mute orphaned gaze
Looking for what had vanished evermore.
Then through the gloom without them and within
The spirit’s shaping light, mysterious speech,
Invisible Will wrought clear in sculptured sound,
The thought-begotten daughter of the voice,
Thrilled on their listening sense: “He has no tomb.
He dwells not with you dead, but lives as Law.”
*** This poem is in the public domain,
and may be read in a live-streamed worship service.
The Death of Moses
Upon the mountain’s summit stands at last
Moses, the prophet and the man of God.
Unwavering his eyes look on the view,
survey the promised scene, the holy land.