Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Five Words

A dear friend shared this quote with me (thanks, Karen!) and I have thought about it often.

"Then I turned my search to Scripture and was overwhelmed by fives. I was astounded to discover, leafing through my Bible, how many of the passages I had marked over the years happened to consist of five words. Many of the most powerful promises in all of Holy Writ are wholly writ in fives. (In English translation at any rate; whether the original Hebrew and Greek are even more austerely economical, I do not, alas, know.)

God’s word to Moses by the light of the burning bush, “I will be with you”; Jesus’ triumphant “I have overcome the world”; and Mary Magdalene’s ringing Easter witness “I have seen the Lord” all are cinquefoil, as it were.

So many of Jesus’ words are familiar to us in clusters of five: “I am the good shepherd,” “Your faith has healed you,” “Rise and have no fear,” “My peace I leave you.” The Hebrew scriptures as well bloom with five-petaled flowers: “I know you by name,” “I will send an angel,” “Love is strong as death.” Similarly, the vision of Saint John at Patmos—the insight that “death shall be no more”—manages to express one of our faith’s essential convictions in five little words. And there is the divine economy of “light shines in the darkness” and “this Jesus God raised up.” Perhaps my own personal favorite, a wonder of brevity set like a gem in another, is “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’”

It is not only blessed assurance that comes in quinary, of course. Think of the serpent in Eden, beguiling Eve with “You will be like God.” Or one of Abraham’s least golden moments when, surrounded by lascivious Egyptians, he whispered to Sarah, “Say you are my sister.”

Admonitions seem naturally to lend themselves to this compression: Scripture positively brims with five-leaved proverbs and aphorisms: “Go and sin no more,” “Serve the Lord with gladness.” Similarly, some of the poignant prayers in the Bible consist of five words: “Lord, have mercy on me,” “Make haste to help me,” “I believe; help my unbelief!” And Thomas, unforgettable, utterly unambiguous, “My Lord and my God.”

Desolation as well seems to fit into quintupled phrases: the devastating “all the disciples forsook him” could be a Holy Week meditation all by itself, as of course could Jesus’ cry from the cross, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” And for me, one of the most perfect visual brushstrokes in the Gospels is the detail from the story of the disciples on the Emmaus road: “They stood still, looking sad.

(Douglas, Deborah Smith., The Praying Life: Seeking God in All Things, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 2203, pgs 4-5)

There was another five word phrase the author related that is not included in the passage above. In an utter triumph of the human spirit, the last thing Etty Hillesum said to friends as she boarded a train bound for a concentration camp was: "Tell them we left singing."

1 comment:

  1. And one of my favorites:

    "and it came to pass"