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Sabbath

by davesandel on May 10th, 2021

Monday, May 10, 2021           (today’s lectionary)

Sabbath

On the sabbath we went outside the city gate along the river where we thought there would be a place of prayer.

It was 1966, and I was seventeen, ready for my senior year. Mike Nichols’ first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? played that summer in Lincoln, Illinois to nearly empty theaters every night. Who wants to watch a movie where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton batter and insult each other for two hours?

Well, I did. But the movie rating required that my mom watch it with me. We sat and watched together. We listened together. They have just returned from a drunken faculty party.

George: What do you want me to do? Bray at everyone all night like you do?

Martha: I don’t bray!

George: All right, you don’t bray.

Martha (braying): I did not bray.

The party’s over, but now at midnight guests are coming. With four voices competing for attention, the gathering collapses quickly into what feels like relational death throes, but then they recover just in time for another round of ugly games.

The Lord takes delight in his people. Let them praise his name in the festive dance. He adorns the lowly with victory.

For years George and Martha have pretended they have a son, Jimmy, who is gone away. Near the end of the night, and the end of the film, George breaks some news to Martha. He received a telegram earlier that night, he said.

Sweetheart, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, for both of us, I mean. Some rather sad news…I’m afraid our boy isn’t coming home for his birthday…Our son is dead. He was killed late in the afternoon on a country road with his learner’s permit in his pocket, and he swerved to avoid a porcupine, and drove straight into a large tree.

I thought you should know.

Martha collapses in tears.

You cannot do that! You cannot decide these things for yourself! I will not let you do that! I will not let you decide these things. Nooooooo, you can’t kill him. You can’t let him die.

George chants a Latin prayer.

Kyrie eleison, christie eleison, kyrie eleison.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Martha demands to see the telegram. George looks into her eyes.

I … ate … it.

By this time Mom and I are exhausted and kind of sick. Of course everyone on the screen is too. The young, innocent biology professor groans, “Oh, my God, I think I understand this.”

The Spirit of truth will testify to me, says the Lord, and you also with testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

On Saturday afternoon I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? again, with closed captions and no sound during the TCM Classic Film Festival. Even without hearing the beating, cruel voices, I felt emptied and unclean.

But director Mike Nichols would not let me stay there. The action in his movie takes place entirely on Sunday, although most of us would call it Saturday night. As their two guests leave, George and Martha walk slowly back toward the house. George gently touches his wife’s shoulder.

You want anything.

No. Nothing.

Time for bed.

Tired?

Yes.

I am.

Sunday tomorrow.

All day.

This moment of awakening, their it’s-about-time liberation from the once-comforting son-myth, seared itself into my mind fifty years ago. That phrase “straight into a large tree” even fleshed itself out in my own life when a van I was driving in rural Pennsylvania lost its brakes in the summer darkness, careened down a hill, made it halfway around a curve, and … yes, wait for it … drove straight into a large tree. The windshield wrapped itself around my cheeks, we had to pick out a bit of glass, but no one was hurt. No one sent a telegram to Illinois.

And forever after, since that summer afternoon at the Lincoln Theater watching the movie with my mom, I think of Sabbath as it slipped between the syllables of George and Martha’s reconciliation, Sabbath while they walked slowly home, Sabbath as George turned out the lights and the sun comes up.

Tired?

Yes.

I am.

Sunday tomorrow.

All day.

As I read the words of Jesus,

I have told you this so that you may not fall away.

(Acts 16, Psalm 149, John 15)

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