I’m packing you in like I said

God has died in the flesh and Hades trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve. The Friend of man goes to lead forth them held captive from ages past, those whom bitter death has stolen from God. In a manner befitting God, He tramples down the tyrant of Hades and death, having with Him the immortal legions of the bodiless hosts.

On the Lord’s Descent into Hades on the Great and Holy Saturday
St. Epiphanius of Cyprus

Nina Simone knew about loss. You don’t even need to know the first thing about her life to hear it in her voice. Being born Black and a woman in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, she was recognized as a prodigy of classical piano at an early age. A story is told that at her first public recital, when she was 12, Simone saw that her parents were moved from the front row of the audience to some place further back in order to make space for white people. She refused to begin until they were returned to their rightful place.

Her obvious talent and dedication eventually gained her a spot at Julliard, but her hopes of pursuing a career as a concert pianist were blocked by denial of admission to a Philadelphia conservatory for further study. Simone always believed that she was turned down on the basis of her skin color. As she began a career in popular music, the struggle for civil rights was never far from her mind.

That her talent was nurtured and her success was recognized in largely, if not predominately, white spaces had to have created conflict within Nina Simone. How could a society so cruel as to deny her full humanity also have contributed to her artistry? The same could be said of her relationship with her manager and husband, Andrew Stroud, who supported her rise to prominence but also abused and manipulated her.

How could she end these relationships which had once been so generative but now seemed corrosive and decayed? How do any of us let go of old patterns that once served a purpose but now only bring grief? It might be that the process of letting go killed Jesus, or perhaps he had to die in order to let it happen. The relationship that Jesus ended, of course, was a relationship with death itself.

The words of the Ancient Homily which we traditionally read on Holy Saturday sound like a victory march, but Jesus doesn’t seem to me like a person who would gloat about anything, even victory over death. I imagine that melancholy of Gethsemane might persist in the harrowing of hell. Trampling down the tyrant of Hades may be necessary, but that doesn’t mean Jesus is necessarily happy about it. Even Lucifer once served God, and it might be hard to say once and for all that it will never be that way again.

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