Essay / Theology

You Didn't Say a Word (Terry Taylor on the Passion of Christ)

About ten years ago, the GREATEST AND MOST OVERLOOKED LIVING SINGER-SONGWRITER Terry Scott Taylor released a CD entitled John Wayne. The whole CD was great, marking Terry Taylor’s umpteenth self-reinvention –this time as a kind of regionalist spiritual pundit, an alterna-pop Flannery O’Connor from Orange County. But a standout song that’s been on my mind this Easter season is a ballad about the death of Christ called You Lay Down.

TST you lay downWhat follows is two things: First, if you’ve never heard the song, here are the lyrics. (in fact, here‘s a youtube video of a live performance, though it’s not the best quality for listening)

Second, if you’re a Terry Taylor fan (hi superfans!), you might enjoy the analysis underneath the lyrics. This is an overly-long personal interaction with the song which I wrote for an online discussion group several years ago.

In a garden of thorns
my Rose of Sharon
bleeds till she’s the color of the moonlight
and though the angels wrap her
in their feathered arms
they cannot conceal her from the darkest night

And you didn’t say a word when they accused you
You did not fight back when the whole world used you

When hate was crowned King
and love was diminished
you stood meek as a lamb there
without blemish
And they laughed when you cried out
“It is finished”

You lay down
You lay down
and I’ll step upon your back
up high enough
above the fence
to see all the way to glory land

Above the garden of thorns my Rose of Sharon
climbs up and clings to an old rugged tower
and though the angels offer her a thousand tears
still she wilts in the cold flames of her darkest hour

And I lied when I said
I never knew you
You did not fight back
when I scarred and bruised you

chorus

And you didn’t say a word
when we accused you
You did not fight back
when we scarred and bruised you

When hate was crowned King
your love never diminished
You stood meek as a lamb there
without blemish
and we laughed when you cried out,
“It is finished”

So you lay down
you lay down
and I’ll step upon your back
up high enough
above the fence
to see all the way to glory land

Here comes the dissection of the song, line by line. You may want to avert your eyes if you have a weak stomach and can’t stand to see a song cut up like this.

In a garden of thorns my Rose of Sharon

The Rose of Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1) is Christ, at least if you’re willing to read the Song of Solomon as, among other things, an allegory of the love between Christ and the Christian, or the Church. There is a long tradition of reading the Song of Solomon this way, from Origen in the 2nd century, right through the medieval mystics and the Reformers down to, I don’t know, Watchman Nee in the 20th. Terry Taylor joins in that centuries-old tradition with a real passion (consider his earlier works like the album Briefing for the Ascent, “When the Moonlight Sleeps” from Fearful Symmetry, or the voice-over that says “come away my love” on his first solo album. Terry is not afraid to employ the whole range of powerful erotic longing in singing about the love of Christ.

The other image here is botanical, as Terry transposes the Rose of Sharon into the garden of thorns. Symbolically, thorns are the result of the primal fall of humanity into sin (Genesis 3:18), in which human rebellion turned the garden into a place where the ground itself is cursed. Christ the Rose grows in that garden, and stands out like the only blossom among the twisted thistles.

Consider Terry Taylor’s other uses of garden imagery: Sometimes it’s the garden of Gethsemane (“Come to the garden, come to the hill; Come to the tree, come to the kill…”, from “Angels Tuck You In”); sometimes it’s Eden (“Long time ago we hid our shame outside the garden wall,” from “Eleanor It’s Raining”); sometimes he leaves it vague on purpose to capitalize on its polyvalence (“Out over the gate we saw angels in the garden”, “If You Want To”). Terry blurs the lines because the gardens belong together: Christ in Gethsemane is the last Adam in the last garden, paying the price demanded by what happened when the first Adam rebelled in the first garden.

bleeds till she’s the color of the moonlight

She is a red rose, I take it, but she has bled out her color and turned pale white from the loss. She takes on “the color of the moonlight.” This line knocks me out: not only does it set the scene more concretely (suggesting that it’s night time under an open sky), but it turns my thoughts to the dark and cold of the night, and points me to the night sky.

and the angels wrap her in their feathered arms
but they cannot conceal her from the darkest night

Angels with feathered arms are cool. Angels ministered to Christ twice that I recall; after his 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, and in Gethsemane. Both times he faced the darkest night.
This line is an interesting contrast to Terry’s sardonic use of angel imagery in earlier songs like “Angels Tuck You In,” where the fantasy angels protect the pampered Christian from any thought of the garden, the hill, the tree, the kill. These angels, real feathered angels, do what they can to tuck her in tonight, but there’s no keeping out the dark and cold.

And you didn’t say a word when they accused you
You did not fight back when the whole world used you

The silence before the accusers here is an allusion to Christ at his trials before Pilate and co., and also to Isaiah’s suffering servant (esp. 53:7). I hang on the line “the whole world used you.” It partially resonates with the actual life and death of Jesus, especially the way he was caught between the wheels of the complex power maneuvers of maintaining national security in Roman-occupied Palestine. Humanly speaking, he was killed for all the wrong reasons, set up to be knocked down, and traded like a pawn to balance the power. He was passed from court to court to court. His life was literally sold for a bag of money. Then it was traded again for the life of a famous rebel, in a carnival-like atmosphere, a “get-off-death-row” lottery of sorts to keep the crowd excited). But “the whole world used you” also jars me into the contemporary world, where Jesus is used for more things by more people than ever before.

When hate was a King your love never diminished
you stood meek as a lamb there without blemish

King Hate evokes for me the sick politics and fickle mob of the passion story. If we are still moving in the sphere of Jesus’ trial, kinghood is also a theme which makes several appearances: Pilate puts the question, are you the king of the Jews? Jesus replies “you say so,” and in John he goes on to say “my kingdom is not of this world.” The soldiers mocked Christ cruelly with a pantomime of royalty. The sign over the cross declared, in three languages: King of the Jews.

Standing meek as a lamb is another echo of Isaiah 53:7 (like a lamb before the shearers he was silent), but Terry cross-references it with the scriptural phrase “a lamb without blemish,” meaning the animal considered perfect for sacrifice under the holiness code (see a zillion refs from Ex 25 to I Peter 1:19). This is a deceptively simple move, linking these two phrases. It’s a way of exploiting the lamb image for its full range of biblical meanings.

And they laughed when you cried out “It is finished”

Notice that we’ve jumped right to the end very suddenly; directly from Gethsemane and the trial(s) to the very moment of death. It’s a powerful omission. Without even noticing consciously that anything’s been skipped, the mind kind of reels because of the size of the leap.

You lay down You lay down
and I’ll step upon your back
up high enough above the fence
to see all the way to glory land

This, at last, is the central image of the song: Laying down and being stepped on.

I think it sets us back in the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ fell on his face before God (“threw himself on the ground”) and poured out his soul in anguish. This is where the feathered angels are, and this is where the decision was made and re-made and stuck to in full view of the consequences. The arresting thing in the image is how clear Terry makes the falling down of Christ and the rising up of sinners. It’s like the physical law demanding an equal and opposite reaction to any thrust: we rise as high as he fell low, or he stooped as low as he intended to raise us up. The sense of compensated leverage, or equilibrium of forces, is almost a translation of the substitutionary-penalty motifs in scripture into physical terms. Christ’s death restores a balance, and at great cost redistributes the forces we set in motion to our own destruction.

Not to compare Terry Taylor to Johann Sebastian Bach or anything, but in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a sprawling 3-hour presentation of the passion of Christ which ends with the entombment of the Lord’s body, there is a gripping line. With 3 hours and dozens of musicians and singers at his command, Bach has plenty of resources to go into great depth about each moment in the passion. In the Gethsemane scene, Bach (or his librettist Picander) has the bass voice sing these lines:

Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder:
Dadurch erhebt er mich und alle
Von unserm Falle
Hinauf zu Gottes Gnade wieder.

(Before his Father falls the Savior low:
Thereby he raises up both me and all,
Up from our fall,
Up to the grace of God once more.)

Same point Terry makes, but here it is made so concretely that I can’t help instinctively wondering where exactly I’m going to plant my foot. Upper back or lower? Left, right, or middle? I’ll need something that doesn’t wiggle when I kick off. It sounds grisly, but I can’t help starting to work through the placement problem when I hear that line.

And not to compare Terry Taylor to the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, but here’s a line from Barth:

In Him, humanity is exalted humanity, just as Godhead is humiliated Godhead. And humanity is exalted in Him by the humiliation of Godhead.

“Humiliation” is a strong and suggestive word, but I think it’s the same thing Taylor’s getting at with “You lay down and I’ll step upon your back,” and all the images of voluntary degradation that set those lines up.

The focus of this song is on the mystery of Gethsemane, but it calls to mind the actions of Maundy Thursday as well: John tells us that Christ, knowing who he was and where he came from, stripped to a towel and washed the disciples’ feet. The reason Peter objected was because Christ was doing something beneath his station; humiliating himself by stooping so low. That would be fairly revealing if it were just an example of how to lead by serving; but in the context of holy week it’s a true revelation, an enactment of God’s love which will go to the cross to implement this pattern of self-emptying.

Another interesting thing is that the word “lay” could be taken a number of different ways, depending on how grammatically correct you think Terry’s being. It’s a word that, no matter what the grammar books say, people use to mean all kinds of things. It could be meant in the sense of past tense, “you layed down,” or or present tense, “you are laying yourself down now” or more generally, “you’re the kind who’s always laying down,” or even imperative, “You! Lay down!” In fact, if it’s to go with “I’ll step upon your back,” the imperative works pretty well, as if an agreement is being negotiated. You lay down, and I’ll step upon your back.

As for looking over a fence into glory land, I think this is a bit of eschatological reserve. The song could have had us climb right out of the garden of thorns. Instead, Terry opts for vision: we see to glory land. Terry used to be very committed to a pop version of dispensationalist eschatology, of Hal Lindsey proportions. He may in fact be the best premillenialist poet since Christian Rossetti. But he’s more circumspect in his use of these images in his songwriting lately.

The fence we see over is a cipher for the barrier between us and God, the limit or boundary between us; “my frontier” through which I can only see if a “hole in the world” permits (as Taylor has sung elsewhere). A fence is a pretty homey image to invoke, but it goes with a garden, I suppose. And there’s the other fence reference on the album, “for instance there’s no fences round your dream when you dream it.”

Above the garden of thorns my Rose of Sharon
climbs up and clings to an old rugged tower

With this verse we start into a repetition of the original verse, with fairly minor changes. But they’re significant. For instance, “clinging” to an old rugged tower is striking. Don’t even get me started on why it’s a tower; but if it’s old rugged, it’s clearly a symbol for the cross. But clinging stresses the determination, the free choice by which this act takes place. You don’t accidentally climb and cling; climbing and clinging is not something that happens to you, but something you do.

This reminds me of medieval Franciscan paintings which show the cross with a ladder propped against it, and Jesus climbing the ladder. It emphasizes the same thing Jesus taught, which is that he lays down his own life voluntarily. Michael Card has a song that includes the line: “Why did they nail his feet and hands; his love would have held him there.” There’s an even more obscure tradition in Franciscan painting that shows Jesus being nailed to the cross by three women. The women are allegorical figures, and what they represent is clearly labelled by the
artist: Nailing Christ’s right hand is Obedience, nailing his left hand is Humility, nailing his feet is Courage, and piercing his side is Love.

and though the angels offer her a thousand tears
still she wilts in the cold flame of her darkest hour

(Unfortunately I sometimes mis-hear “the corn flakes of her darkest hour,” which breaks the mood.)

And I lied when I said I never knew you

The parallel line from the first verse was “you didn’t say a word when they accused you,” but here in the second half of the song it is replaced by a first person confession: I said I never knew you. The allusion is to Peter’s denial of Christ in the courtyard during the trial before Pilate. We are no longer reporting on an event inside the court, but watching a simultaneous event out here where we are. Inside, Jesus is silent before his accusers, and out here I am Peter denying him. The focus has shifted from the fate of Jesus in the hands of others, to the fate of Jesus at my own hands.

You did not fight back when I scarred and bruised you

Same move, but this time I must be stepping in to the character of the executioners and torturers. How much further can this go?

When hate was a King your love never diminished
You stood meek as a lamb there without blemish
and we laughed when you cried out,
how we laughed when you cried out, “It is finished”

Again, the shift to first person, but this time it’s plural, from “they” to “we.”

A little musical breather, and then:

And you didn’t say a word when we accused you
You did not fight back when the whole world used you.
When hate was crowned King, your love never diminished

To the bare “king” image is added now the word “crown,” which definitely brings to mind the mock crowning of Christ.

You stood meek as a lamb there, without blemish
And we laughed when you cried out, It is finished.

So you lay down you lay down
and I’ll step upon your back
up high enough above the fence
to see all the way to glory land

arma christi Parts of the song remind me of medieval devotional images called the “arma Christi.” These are paintings of the cross or the crucifixion, but instead of being set in a historical landscape with all the right characters present, these images have isolated implements of the passion suspended in visual space around the cross: a crown of thorns, a spear, a whip, a sponge on a stick, dice, the disembodied face of a spitting man, a rooster, thirty pieces of silver, and so on. One of the most famous of these arma Christi images is by Fra Angelico, a fresco at San Marco in Florence, Italy. The purpose of these images was to hold before the worshipper these individual elements of Christ’s passion, for reflection, penitence, and adoration. “You Lay Down” does the same thing, by evoking the moments of Christ’s movement toward death, and recounting the story in strange terms that cause me to stop and reflect in ways I hadn’t before.

Terry Taylor’s a great songwriter, and his work is well worth pondering. I’ve found that it almost always repays the effort.

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