…all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.
The promise shines bright,
but not all have eyes to see.
Many search elsewhere, dismissive of their quest
for nothing great comes from Palestine.
Preferring the grandeur of temple and palace courts,
they snub noses at a people on their knees
and follow other stars for other fates.
Yet to those who’ve been waiting,
those willing to hoist saddle and trudge desert sands,
the movement of stars matches movements in hearts
and the star points to what they are seeking.
Only this is unexpected: not only
do they bring the ointment of kings
and the gold that’s surely fit for him
but a resin that embalms when bodies expire,
a sign that the child-king lives here to die.
Knees bow before this acceptance of fate
while proud knees are buckled at the truth.
Only when it humbles will it save.
At first darkness you saw it,
Light looming large on the horizon,
transfiguring and sanctifying all that it struck.
Yet you were drawn, contrariwise,
to a glistening object that,
no light of its own, could only reflect
or, at worst, refract.
Distracted by prismatic brilliance,
you answered the wrong call,
saw charisma and grabbed at it.
Only, Light denied you. Fistful of air,
you returned to your bedroom and sat
where only Light equipped to pierce darkness could reach. Okay, speak, you said reluctantly in the direction of the Light.
And so the Light began.
And so your life began.
Save me, O God: for the waters are entered even to my soul. I stick fast in the deep mire, where no stay is: I am come into deep waters, and the streams run over me.
(Psalm 69:1-2, 1599 Geneva Bible)
Is it, as Bosch would have it, a sinking scene,
hut scarcely erect, while in the background
knights and crusaders fight, and crazed faces peek
through cracks in the broken structure?
If so, my crazed face peeks.
Show me the truth through the falling thatch.
Let me climb to the roof to see
the light greater than the dark in me.
Or, as for Dürer, does the Light lie in castle ruins?
Do relic-arches arc around the one who put
the promise-bow into the arching sky?
Do dark clouds gather on the edges? If so,
those clouds are me. O light eternal,
lighten the load the makes me droop and bristle.
I drown in the dry of my day.
Unwise, I come. Do not send my tattered folly away.
An error in the typeface, no doubt:
a missing space between God and swept,
as in, a wind from God
swept over the face of the waters.
Yet, in that mistaken instant,
my mind glimpses God sweeping,
baptismal waves enfolding me, Godswept, swept up in God.
Was it like this, at Jordan,
or at Ephesus, when
the new baptism, greater than John’s, was proclaimed?
Was the wind from God sweeping
as Ephesian believers
were swept up in new life,
new spirit, new wine?
Were the rammed-earth floors soaked
to the soil with that drenching?
Did the waves of God flood
through all their old toil?
O to be Godswept again and again,
to taste the salt, or the sand,
of Godwaters enclose.
Safe on the shore, I need to be Godswept.
May mistakes like this sweep
all my wisdom to sea.
“What can I give him,
Poor as I am?”
Today is one of the most important days in the old church calendar, but also one of the most widely forgotten: the feast of Epiphany. Today we remember the wise men visiting Jesus, but we also remember what this represents, that the Gospel has been made known to the nations. Epiphany is an older celebration than Christmas, and in some early church documents it appears to have been the date when the Eastern church at least celebrated Jesus’ birthday. It’s a wonderful day, full of rich significance for believers to celebrate. Today we’re going to enlist one of my favourites, Bach, to see us through, with the help of his first Epiphany cantata. You can read the text and translation here.
I will arise with the stars.
In dappled light, the ground illuminates to show
the king made low,
the way made known.
I will arise with the stars to see
the glory that shines from east to west,
though wearing humble clothes.
I will arise with the night.
With nothing in my hand to give, I will receive
for years enclosed.
I will arise in the night to see
the light that day has not received
and now is bright to see.
I will travel with the kings
though I am no king, nor have ever been wise.
I will arise
with the stars in my eyes
and give a broken heart, for all
the better your treasure to store.
This is what must first be given to the painting, a harmonious warmth, an abyss into which the eye sinks, a voiceless germination…
How often is he shown with those horns of light,
as though his head were itself full
of the brightest luminescence and
two cracks, two holes
had formed inside his skull to let
escape all that light, kept
invisibly, impossibly, inside.
Yet for Rembrandt see
how darkness grabs the eye much more
than all the plainness of that face,
how even those two tablets seem
as black as all the dark to which
we’re told that he drew near, while all
of Israel stood just far enough
away to not be safe.
And when El Greco takes
the striking forms of Sinai as
his text, the darkness is
in every shadow-line beneath
the redness of the clouds, around
those rocky pillars, rising from
the chalky, sketchy ground.
Not darkness, but light, shone forth
from those two tablets when
the light-horned Moses brought them down.
Yet light like that we must squint to see.
When fear declares that only man
is safe, that we can’t bear to hear
the voice that struck the tablets’ side:
O let us step, like Moses, to
that darkness without human horns
where only in that absence
of human sight can all Your light
be ever fully seen.
Arise, shine, for your light has come…
Then the Glory opens up, and the exposition begins…after the sheaves of night, the spirals of anxiety, here the triumph of love and the tears of joy – all the passion of our arms around the Invisible!…
Do you see a star unlike the others?
Have you watched through the ages, longing to see
this revelation, this epiphany?
To some without eyes, the night smothers;
and now, true, it lurks behind covers
of dark. But others, it beckons vividly:
those who press on through the dark, finally
to see the Morning resting yet nonethe-
less glorious, soon to shine all its Day
on mankind, those once far and those once near…
The silence is over; the patience yawns
for the fruits of dawn in sparkling array.
Be still before Him, newborn sons of dawn,
transfigured together, history made clear.