Down on the corner, out in the street, Willy and the Poor Boys are playing. Bring a nickel; tap your feet.
To me, they were just song lyrics. But to my husband, the words were a revelation. After I’d finished singing the chorus to the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic, he shouted, “Is that what they’re saying?”
We joke that he has a condition called “chronic lyricosis” because he constantly mishears song lyrics. So I now serve as his personal Rosetta Stone, deciphering what was once unintelligible, matching words to notes, and helping him learn tunes all over again.
I think faith works much the same way. We can’t fully comprehend concepts like the Trinity, or we overthink something as breathtakingly simple as grace, so we bumble through life only half understanding exactly what we believe. But there are moments when we engage our faith in ways foreign or familiar and something clicks. Clarity cuts through the gray haze of confusion, and God reveals His glory once again.
Just such a thing happened to me when I read “Easter Wings” by George Herbert. I’d analyzed, taught, and shared the poem countless times, but when I was willing to read it with spiritual eyes as well as analytical ones, I saw something I had previously missed.
The poem reads:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
It’s easy to get caught up in the winged shape of this poem and lose the treasure hidden in its structure. Herbert makes use of a rhetorical device called chiasmus (from the Greek letter Chi, which is represented by an X). It is a figure of speech in which two clauses are related to each other through reversal. It may sound complicated, but you’re already familiar with one key example: Matthew 19:30 says, “But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” See the reversal Jesus speaks of? Crisscross. Reversal. One thing becomes the other in God’s kingdom. That’s chiasmus.
In “Easter Wings,” Herbert highlights the difference between man and God, temporal and eternal, fallible and perfect. In the first five lines of each stanza, man is foolishly working in his own strength and becomes “most poore” and “most thinne” for his efforts. Even the shape of the poem reflects this change—notice how each line gets shorter and less substantial as man “decays” and falls from God.
But two words change everything: “with thee.” Those are the words I’d glossed over before, and understanding them made all the difference. They reminded me that we are never too far gone to be restored.
In the final five lines of each stanza, after God is invoked, His surpassing greatness is on display. Rather than shrink, each line gets longer and more expansive. Harmony is restored, victory is attained, and the speaker once again can soar.
In these lines, Herbert echoes the apostle Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). He tells us we can overcome every obstacle, even our wretched, foolish selves, when we imp (“repair”) our broken wings by leaning on the Almighty’s.
Every time I read this poem, I’m reminded of two things. One, that words matter—regardless of how little they seem. And two, that with God, I am “free indeed” (John 8:36). Christ’s sacrifice, His brokenness, made my redemption possible. Because of His work on the cross, my story and yours became examples of divine chiasmus—of Christ’s ability to restore us all to God.