The concept of the apocalypse can be hard to grasp. So let me quote a few illuminating lines on the subject.
And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.”
And I saw. And behold, a white horse.
There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names
An’ he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around.
Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’. Some are born an’ some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.
The hairs on your arm will stand up.
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
For you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the man comes around.
Does anyone here recognize this passage? Anyone? Those of you in the know know that I have been quoting from J.C. Otherwise known as The Man. That’s right – the one and only…Johnny Cash.
The passage…excuse me, the lyrics, come from a song called “The Man Comes Around” that Cash released in 2002. Cash called it his own song of the apocalypse. Critics called it his best in years.
As you know, Johnny Cash was an apocalyptic kind of man, a man who sometimes drew a rich and nourishing life energy from the third rail of the cosmos–but also a man who often drew too close to that third rail for his own good. In the liner notes of his 1996 album, Unchained, Cash itemized the subjects he loved to sing about. Let me quote. “Family, love, hard times, prison, whiskey, marriage, adultery, tragedy, heartbreak, pride, murder, war, judgment day, damnation, salvation, death, piety, rebellion, mother and God.” End quote.
That about covers it, don’t you think? Some among us might argue that God used that very same list of ingredients when he cooked up the human race. Now, some people understand the apocalypse in traditional, Biblical terms. It is the ordained end of history. Others see it, both literally and metaphorically, in the here-and-now. They see it in the falling twin towers, in Afghanistan and Iraq , in the Sudan , in Haiti . And others, like Johnny Cash – and many of our 0wn in my pastoral care – understand the apocalypse as something that can and does happen individually, personally, internally.
We know through the testimony of many of our saints down through the ages that in their moments of greatest personal apocalypse, Jesus stood beside them. His life and death were the strongest answer to the powers of darkness. And it is his work of salvation that holds us through all the hatred of the powers that threaten to bring about a holocaust in our own lives. We are no less vulnerable than were the disciples whom Jesus encouraged in Luke’s gospel.
How, then, are we to confront our own personal apocalypses? J.C.’s life has something to say about that – and so does Johnny Cash’s.
It was 1968 when Johnny got off pills and alcohol, got religion and married his second wife and soul mate, June Carter, a devout Christian. Cash would relapse over the years, ravaging his body. He suffered from diabetes. He underwent heart bypass surgery. He was prone to bouts of pneumonia. His backsliding with booze and pain killers lasted into the early 80s, and left his digestive system in tatters. Cash was in failing health the last ten years of his life. He was diagnosed with a Parkinson’s-like condition that caused nerve damage and severe pain which forced him to stop touring in 1997. He kept making music though.
During the last 10 years of his life, Cash collaborated with an unlikely record producer, a man named Rick Rubin, who was credited with resurrecting his career. They were the odd couple: the sixty-something Man in Black, a confirmed Bible-thumping citizen of Nashville, and a thirty-something Jewish dude who sported a ZZ-Top beard, wore wrap-around shades indoors, and founded the hip-hop label, Def Jam Records, which launched the careers of such acts as L.L. Cool J and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Another point of departure between them was Rubin’s clean living. The man has been drunk only once in his life, and has never taken drugs. It was a sort of reverse Tuesdays with Morrie, with the younger man imparting wisdom and serenity to his older companion.
What Cash and Rubin did have in common, besides music, is a questing spirituality. Rubin was raised Jewish but gave up his religion after being kicked out of Hebrew school as a teenager for disciplinary problems. Rubin’s describes his library at home as crammed with religious texts and path-to-enlightenment guides: the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, C.S. Lewis, some Buddhism, and some new agey stuff to satisfy his pan-theological curiosity. Cash never dismissed Rubin’s patchwork spirituality; he saw him as his catechumen and their discussions of Jesus as an opportunity for Cash to share his faith. He and Cash were bibliophiles and comparative-religion junkies and, as Cash’s health became more frail, their partnership increasingly became more spiritual—a quest not just for musical greatness, but for God’s truth.
As some of you may have read in a terrific article in the October issue of Vanity Fair, six months before Cash’s death, Rubin was visiting John and June at their home in Tennessee . He was to escort them to the Country Music Television awards, at which Cash was to receive a special-achievement award. But Cash was too ill to go, so they stayed home and watched the ceremony on TV. Soon, the two men embarked on one of their theological discussions. The subject of Holy Communion came up. Rubin told Cash that before Rubin died, he would like to take Communion. “And Cash said ‘Let’s do it together now, right now.’ ” Cash found his Communion kit and performed the priest’s role, speaking the words and presenting the offering of wafer and wine – ‘crackers and grape juice,’ Rubin recalled because that’s what happened to be in the house.’ “
From that day forward Cash and Rubin performed the ritual of Communion every day until Cash passed away. In many ways it was an unorthodox arrangement. Cash was bedridden in Tennessee and Rubin was back working in Los Angeles . But at an appointed time each day, Rubin would call Cash and Cash would officiate, instructing Rubin to visualize the wafer and wine. “I’d close my eyes and he would say, ‘And they retired to a large upper room for the Passover feast, and Jesus picked up the bread, took a piece of the bread, and passed the bread around. And he held up the bread and he said, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Eat, and do this in remembrance of me.'” Then Johnny would say, ‘Visualize the eating, swallow. Feel it.’ ‘And then he picked up the jug of wine. He poured the wine,’ and he said, “This is my blood, which is shed for the remission of your sins. Drink, and do this in remembrance of me.'”
Not long after Cash’s death, Rubin received an unexpected package from John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son. Inside was a little leather case holding a flask, a cup, a snippet of Scripture from John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” and some instructional notes written Cash’s hand (“Open the bread. Give thanks. Eat. Pour Wine”). It was Cash’s personal Communion kit. So now, even after Cash’s death, Rubin continues to perform the daily ritual consumption of Christ’s body and blood in solitude. He prays for Johnny’s spirit to be with him, and admits as time goes on his presence feels more faint. But Rubin keeps the lyrics of Cash’s apocalyptic tune “A Man Comes Around” close to his heart: The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter’s ground. When the man comes around.
No, what we have in the connection of Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin is a simple, beautiful story of two men bound in love and in death. Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “Believe to the end, even if all men went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in our loneliness…and if two of you are gathered together then there is a whole world, a world of living love. Embrace each other tenderly and praise God, for if only in you two, God’s truth has been fulfilled.”
The season of Advent is upon us – we’re to prepare ourselves for Christ to dwell among us. We’re to repent and make ourselves pure and whole for the birth of our Lord. Would it be stretch, a stretch of our vision, our faithfulness, to reconcile ourselves to one another and to God by taking bread and wine in Christ’s name and giving thanks? I don’t think so. Let’s begin on Thanksgiving Day. I know Andrew and I will have an abundance to be thankful for, certainly for our family and friends, but most especially for the gift and miracle of our newborn babe. On that day, after you’ve shared in the Eucharist here at St. James’s or where ever your holiday travels take you, break bread with your loved ones knowing that the presence of Christ blesses you, heals and forgives you, fortifies you, and brings you peace now and for evermore. Amen.