One of the things I love most about literature is its ability to precisely name things we are otherwise familiar with, and to help us to see them anew. Poetry, in particular, is the art of naming with precision and care. And Nikki Grimes’ volume of Easter poems, At Jerusalem’s Gate does a beautiful job of naming – of precisely articulating – what it must have been like to experience the intense, devastating, ultimately transformative events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
The first poem opens, literally, at Jerusalem’s gate as a minor Jewish priest strains to get a glimpse of the wonderworker who is processing into Jerusalem on a donkey. He ponders the accounts and probability of Jesus’ miracles, and concludes, “He is, by all accounts, extraordinary, yet I find him quite ordinary.” Until, that is:
Until he turns and drinks me in.
I gasp, a-tremble,
grasp a palm frond
and wave in a frenzy of praise and adoration,
as if my very life depends upon it.
It’s a simple account, surely – and yet a living glimpse into what it must have been like to be swept into the adoration and excitement that was Palm Sunday.
The poems proceed through the events of Holy Week, the Passion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. What I particularly appreciate is how each poem calls us to consider these events as they really happened. What must it have been like, after all, to be at Passover and suddenly have Jesus announce that one of his beloved disciples would betray him? And that he would die? And oh, yes, this bread is his body and this wine is his blood? I think we can become immune to the language, over time, and these poems restore some of the original shock and confusion that accompanied the events.
There are two poems, in particular, that I love. The first is called “From a Distance” (not to be confused with the Bette Midler song, for readers of a certain age), and it recounts Peter’s experience witnessing the Crucifixion from afar. “The shadow of the thing/was all I saw,/the crosses, three, a blot/against the sky.” As much as we read about Peter’s betrayal, I never thought about what it must be like to know that your Lord and Friend was being executed and only to see the thing from afar. This is a despairing poem, full of anger and grief, as Peter must have felt his highest hopes and dreams betrayed. For those of us who like to remember that we always live in the Resurrection, it is a good thing to be pulled back into the anguish of Good Friday and Holy Saturday from time to time.
The poem that immediately follows is “The Highwayman,” and it is in the voice of the believing thief on the cross (Luke 25:39-43). He recognizes Jesus in his innocence and royalty (“I’ve robbed and roundly beaten/enough innocents to know/he is one.”) and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into His kingdom. With his dying breath, Jesus promises that they will be together in Paradise. The last four lines of the poem are words I hope to recite on my own deathbed:
My guilt and fear evaporate.
Content–I never was before!–
I close my eyes to wait
’til we meet at heaven’s door.
Of course, even as I write this, I can think of other favorites as well – including one in which the tree which has been hewn into the Cross asks its Maker’s forgiveness, and the one in which Mary says her last goodbye to her Son. That one never fails to make me cry.
The poems are accompanied by beautiful woodcut illustrations by David Frampton. The figures evoke Byzantine icons, and illuminate the words of the poetry without distracting.
In our house, Holy Week is special; it always feels as though time goes more slowly and is richer, more sacred. Last year, my daughter and I read the poems that accompanied each day, and I plan to do the same this year. These poems invite children into the wonder, fear, and majesty of the events, and don’t shy away from the difficult questions they raise. Questions like, was Judas destined to betray Jesus? What role did his own will play? Could Jesus have refused his Father’s commission in the Garden? The poems refuse to offer simple answers, and instead invite us into the mystery and human drama by which we are all saved.
A note: last year, I did skip the poem about Jesus’ torture before his death (“Call It What You Will”). The account of Jesus’ suffering – while perfectly biblical – was just too graphic for my then-three-year-old. I think I’ll probably skip it this year too. And be forewarned that the thief on the cross calls damnation down on the religious leaders who condemn Jesus to death. I think those things are perfectly appropriate for older children, but I’m waiting a bit to introduce them to my preschool-aged daughter. Still, although much of the rest of the volume is a little over her head, I still found it worthwhile to read with her and anticipate making it a tradition each Holy Week and Easter.