Christmas 11: Upsidedown

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Rembrandt, “The Flight into Egypt: a night piece”, from a print made by Henri Louis Basan, c. 1810

One of the more curious lost phenomena of Christmas was the late Medieval custom of appointing a so-called “Lord of Misrule” (or, as called in Scotland, the “Abbot of Unreason”). This involved either a peasant or an unimportant figure in the church being appointed to oversee the Christmas revelries. A related or parallel custom involved appointing a “boy bishop”, a child who would be bishop for the duration of the Christmas season. The “misrule” over which the Lord of Misrule ruled was sufficiently baudy that the Protestant Tudor rulers, as part of their cleaning up of the English church, saw fit to abolish the custom (although the Catholic Tudor, Mary I, saw fit to reinstate it). Yet there’s an unexpected biblical truth contained in the custom: that human rule is turned upside down by the coming of a baby king into the world who, though born a peasant, was God Himself.

As we approach Epiphany (this Saturday), the daily readings remind us of the ways that the wisdom of the world is different to the wisdom of God (expressed by the wise men finding the heavenly king not with Herod but in peasant Bethlehem). Today’s poem takes as its inspiration the rollicking Medieval song, “Lux Hodie, Orientus Partibus”, a joyful song about a powerful donkey carrying a king. It’s in these kinds of moments that I think the Medieval church remembered something about the truth of Christmas that we would do well to remember today.

Upsidedown

You who would be wise, take heed:
the king lies in a peasant’s bed.

You who would be great, take heed:
He takes a donkey as His steed.

You who would follow Him, take heed:
His throne’s a cross, a cursed tree.

You who would find life, take heed:
true life must die first, as a seed.

You who would be wise, take heed:
most blessed is this bruised reed.

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