Perhaps the most cryptic verse (aside from all the other verses) in Sufjan’s song, The Only Thing, is the second one. Rereading all the lyrics would be a good idea, but if that’s too much work I’ll just quote the second verse and the refrain that follows:
The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark
Signs and wonders, water stain writing the wall
Daniel’s message, blood of the moon on us all
Do I care if I despise this, nothing else matters, I know
In a veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost?
Sufjan did not grow up next to his mother. But his family would drive up to Michigan to visit. There is where he formed most of his memories of her, from what I can tell. One of those memories is mentioned here in this verse — a stay at a Holiday Inn. Something within me connects with him here. It’s a mix of longing and sadness. He paints this night as full of warmth and connection and play. Likely during the “warm bath” he dipped his finger in the water, and then traced out invisible, soapy mysteries along the wall.
The love that filled that night keeps him from cutting his arms. The absence of that love (due to his mother’s death) produced a rage that called for the judgement, rejection, and end of the whole world. Let me explain.
Sufjan cuts right from the “warm bath” to “Daniel’s message, blood of the moon on us all.” I believe the message Sufjan is referring to here is the message Daniel delivers to Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son. My last post delineated the obstinancy and ignorance of Nebuchadnezzar when he encountered “signs and wonders” from God. Like father like son, I guess. Belshazzar threw a party using tableware from the temple in Jerusalem. He committed sacrilege by doing so. A hand appeared and wrote a message on the wall. Once again, great anxiety – and I’m talking “his color changed” kind of anxiety – filled the one who did not understand the message he was sent. He was so thoroughly stupid he had to have his wife remind him that Daniel was still alive and well. Once summoned, Daniel told him its meaning. Daniel Chapter 5:
“Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” The book of Daniel then records, “That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.”
Judgement came swiftly for Belshazzar. And swift judgement is what Sufjan desires for the whole world: “Blood of the moon on us all.” Here Sufjan is juxtoposing Daniel and the book of Revelation in the same breath, and the connection is that of judgement. Revelation speaks of the dies irae, the day of wrath, or the final judgement. If I’m right, it’s a reference specifically to Revelation 6.
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Perhaps Sufjan is asking for more than he knows. Sometimes despair is like that. I remember the first time I got really honest with God. I was punching my steering wheel and screaming obscenities at Him. I said things I wouldn’t say normally say.
Sufjan’s mom is dead and that means something is wrong with this world. He calls down judgement on the whole thing by his invocation of the signs in Revelation. To this rage he adds defiance — “Do I care if I despise this?”
There is no Daniel to whom Sufjan can appeal for help. However, there may still be hope.
In the next and final post on this song, I will talk about Sufjan’s reference to faith, reason, and the gospel of grace.