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Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home;

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Yesterday’s choir honored Junteenth by singing the African American spiritual, Steal Away, composed around 1862. Its yearning to make a radical change, in secrecy, smarts the senses, provokes shortness of breath, enhances identification. Repetitious lyrics and the melodic line afford rapid learning and lodge in the heart-memory. Such is my take on this spiritual, in my present circumstances.

Although Steal Away was composed by Wallace Willis, a field slave of a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian territory, Doaksville, Oklahoma, its widespread use among enslaved Africans is questioned by Frederick Douglass, freed slave and African American social reformer, and other current critics.

The spiritual’s use, as code for fugitives on the Underground Railroad, is also questioned as little evidence substantiates this claim. Douglass maintained only small groups planning escape to the North found courage in singing Steal Away. Such singing the white populace regarded as the “many silly things they do.”—Viewing them as less than human.

I ain’t got long to stay here.

So, the declaration concludes, impacted by strong metaphors: home: realm of freedom and eternal life; thunder and lightning: sources of dangerous energy; the trumpet: instrument of authority used in Old Testament for worship services, teaching, correction, and announcing war; call: a summons that demands immediate compliance, thunder, lightning, and green trees bending that suggest nature’s influence. At work here is the redemptive power of the Lord among sinners, falling short of the mark.

I include myself among them as I wait…

As Holy Week begins, many search the scriptures for glimpses of Jesus of Nazareth through prayer and ritual enactment of His passion, death, and resurrection. Both Testaments reference God’s salvation mysteries, a response to the woeful circumstances that we have created for themselves. One of the most powerful images comes from the Old Testament, and still sparks fire in my psyche and reduces me to silence.

The image of an enigmatic suffering servant emerges in four songs, found in the Book of Consolation, attributed to Isaiah’s prophetic school, the Book of Consolation, in the sixth century, BCE.   

In the First Servant Song, Yahweh speaks of taking his beloved’s hand and forming Him, endowing Him with the spirit of prophets, gentleness, and soft-spokeness. As servant, His mandate is to serve the cause of right, to be a covenant of His people, and to free the blind and imprisoned.

To his former gifts, the Servant in the Second Song acknowledges his former gifts, adding his tongue like a sharp sword or arrow for disputes, and his light a beacon for all nations. Salvation is world-wide.

The gift of listening enables the Third Servant, with Yahweh’s help, to maneuver the courts; opposition will be devoured “like moths.” Critical, above all, is to lean upon God in the midst of darkness. The first reference to “plucking beards,” to “whippings” occurs in this Song.

But in The Fourth Song, the suffering servant bears the full brunt of unspeakable cruelties, many of which are identical with Jesus’s passion narrative in the gospels. These atrocities, silently borne, address the global sin that still persists.

So, superimposing these vignettes atop each other, reveal another way of viewing Jesus that still silences me, especially Jesus in His suffering members in Ukraine. There, fires still burn.

Joy shimmers within the holy night of mystery.


Such occurs during the chanting of the Exultet before the newly blessed Paschal candle at the Easter Vigil. The energy swelling each word loosens sacred stories from their moorings: the necessary and happy fault of Adam’s sin, the Israelites’ Passover and deliverance from Egypt’s bondage, their subsequent guidance by the pillar of fire in the desert, and the Great Hallel Psalms 113 – 118 and 136; then, melds these stories within the crucifixion and redemptive death of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, rejoicing is more than fit as the Gregorian chant sustains these words, too fragile to hold what they communicate.

What also gives me pause is the Exultet’s composition. Textural analysis shows the mind of the fourth-century St. Ambrose, but the earliest extant manuscript of the hymn is found in the seventh-century Bobbio Missal Christian Liturgical Codex in France.

 And even more significant is the Exultet’s continuous use, despite modifications, among worshiping congregations in the Western world. Its vision still permeates, its joy gladdens, its hope grounded in the mystery of the Sacred-with-us.

Even this night, though streamlined this year, the deacon will again chant the Exultet in Christian churches, its mysticism uplifting the weary and anxious around the world.

Toward the end of the Exultet, we hear: O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human. Amen.


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