There is a common physiological phenomenon that occurs to many people as their bodies cross the threshold from a waking state into deep sleep. An involuntary twitch of the muscles, called a hypnic jerk, wrenches the body awake. This is often preceded by a distinct sensation of falling that can be quite horrifying. Scientists don’t really understand it. It may be that our daytime motor control is exerting a last burst of effort for dominance as our muscles enter full relaxation on the cusp of dreaming. It may even be an evolutionary echo: our brain mistakes this necessary muscle relaxation for the experience of falling out of a tree, and sends a sudden flash of warning to the body. Whatever the cause, there is something deep, something primal in us, that resists relinquishing control as we approach the mysterious, nightly death of sleep.
In tonight’s passage from Acts, we hear about a boy named Eutychus and an unexpected fall. Eutychus falls asleep and falls to his death from a third-floor window. This tragic accident interrupts the bigger story with a profusion of small details. It happened “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread,” Luke writes. The furniture is different, but we have been here before. Paul breaks open the word in an upper room in Troas, just as Jesus did in Jerusalem on the night before he died, and again after his Resurrection. Paul’s destination, too, is Jerusalem. As the gravity of his self-offering becomes clear, the power of the Lord’s resurrection flashes forth within and around him.
It is tempting to see in Eutychus a literary foil for Paul: a helpless and hapless boy in contrast to a great teacher and healer. But I think that Eutychus is instead a mirror, both for Paul and for us. The details of the story lull us into sympathy and identification: the lamps were many; the hour was late; the window was open; Paul talked still longer. We ourselves have felt this before: the nod and doze and struggle as bodily need overrides the strongest of wills. Eutychus reminds us of us. And in doing that, he reminds me of Jesus, who became like us. He reminds me of the Jesus who slept in the prow of a fishing boat amid the strongest of storms. He reminds me of the Jesus whose body fell willingly, but no less painfully, into the arms of death. Paul is interrupted in his good and important words about Jesus… by Jesus, in the person of Eutychus. Paul responds. He goes down to the boy, dead on the ground below. In my praying imagination I see one of those enormous, staircase pulpits you see in big cathedrals; Paul the preacher descends, “and bending over him took the boy in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”
What did Paul see or sense in that trembling stillness before he discerned that life, still present, still pulsing? Maybe just this: that there is something deep, something primal in us all – Paul included– that resists relinquishing control to a God whose arms stretch so wide to catch us because they are nailed to a cross. This tender man bent over a boy’s broken body reveals the Paul I love. There can be a hardness in Paul’s repeated injunctions to remain awake, forged from the sobering demands of spiritual warfare in a world hypnotized and dreaming. But even soldiers sleep. It is Paul’s moments of utter vulnerability that I most cherish, the sure signs of God’s strength made perfect in Paul’s weakness that point to the immensity of God’s longsuffering Love. The vulnerable Paul reminds me of the vulnerable me.
As we all bear the cross of living in a world that is breathless, on fire, and desperate for hope, I am reading its effects in my sleepless body. That primal feeling of falling, that twitch of muscles grasping for control of something, anything, awakens me many nights. So I, a person in a black cassock on this side of the camera, entrust to you this confession: as Paul needed Eutychus, and as Eutychus needed Paul, we need you all so very much. We are blessed beyond imagining to have been given to one another as Brothers in these hard times, but without you alongside us, our life is incomplete. Your presence in the Spirit keeps us from falling more than you will ever know. In this vulnerable knowledge, may we all keep bending low and reaching our arms across the distance, through the longing and the lack, and saying: “Do not be alarmed. His life is still in us.” Amen.
Lectionary Year: Daily Office Year 2
Proper: First Evensong of the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)
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