“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning light.” (Psalm 30:5b)
“My Lord what a …” I honestly do not know how to authentically complete that line. The legend is that this spiritual can have multiple meanings. The most familiar version of the song is said to have been written in the North by formerly enslaved, now freed persons, with a tune and lyrics of rejoicing. While most people today are probably familiar with the title “My Lord What a Morning,” a variation on the lyrics — changing the word “morning” to “mourning” — has also been used in this song.
Historians point to this other version as being mostly sung by enslaved Black folk in the South. There is no celebration of trumpets sounding, sinners repenting, or Christians shouting. This version is truly one of mourning.
“The falling stars their orbits leave, the sun in darkness hide; the elements asunder cleave, and the moon turn’d into blood.”
You might think these homonyms — mourning and morning — make no difference in the singing of the song. But the word choice here changes everything. My assumption is that a multitude of Black Americans have found themselves between these two extremes this year, between a joyful morning and the heaviness of mourning.
2020 brought multiple unjust deaths and 2021 brought the advent of verdicts and sentencing. And just as a Body of Christians waits for the arrival of “Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent,” Black folk have been waiting for rulings. To quote Howard Thurman, we are waiting for a “judgment [that] is personal and cosmic so that even the rocks and the mountains, the stars, the sea, are all involved in so profound a process.” We have waited to know if it was still the dark of night or if morning sunlight would truly reveal itself.
In this time of waiting, we’ve heard arguments about children who have the capacity to carry weapons but who aren’t “ready” to read about America’s inexcusable and incessant sin of enslavement. We’ve watched as those slain were dragged deeper into the depths of shame.
In some moments we lifted up our heads to morning light as our tears fell back. And in others, feeling only surrounded by heaviness, we bowed our head and filled the ground beneath our feet with our tears.
So, this season of Christian Advent, I sit with my fellow Black folk wondering will it be mourning or morning coming. Though I know my Savior comes to redeem with morning sunlight, I am also aware of what happens to the brown skin Christ child brought into the world.
“My Lord what a Mourning/Morning…” Amen.
Timothy Peoples is the senior minister of Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina.