Christmas 12: “The rich and poor meet together”

On this night in Shakespeare’s day, there would have been wild revelry to celebrate the twelfth night of Christmas. He even named one of his plays this, a sign perhaps that it was to be performed on the twelfth night, but also a possible nod to the ways that Christmas switches around our ideas of wisdom and foolishness, poverty and wealth. This same inversion is captured for me in the wondrously celebratory first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, a piece which surprises listeners by placing the recorder, not usually a solo instrument, alongside the violin. It isn’t a Christmas carol in any sense, but I think it’s still a fitting conclusion to our early music Christmas season. It also works well as a soundtrack to one of our texts for today, Proverbs 22:2, which says, “The rich and poor meet together: the LORD is the maker of them.”

“The rich and poor meet together”

Hear this: it’s singing,
joyfully, stridently.
Nothing is as you have thought it to be.

Listen: the king is
enthroned, he is ruling.
Yet see how he rules, how he lays down his crown.

Watch this: the minstrels
sit at the king’s table.
See how the courtiers have no place to lounge.

Listen: recorders
are trilling in triumph.
Come to the feast! (Leave your privilege behind.)

Christmas 10: Sit at my right hand

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Caravaggio, “Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence”, 1609.

“The LORD says to my Lord…” (Psalm 110:1). These are surely some of the more mysterious words to appear in the Bible. Who is the second Lord to whom the writer, King David, is referring? Who could even be understood to be David’s Lord apart from God, the LORD? David, after all, was king of all Israel; no-one beside God was higher than him. And yet he looks to another Lord who will be made king over everything and who, mysteriously, will also be a priest forever too. In Jesus, the mystery is, if not resolved, at least given flesh so we can behold it.

Today’s piece is Vivaldi’s powerful setting of Psalm 110, entitled “Dixit Dominus” (“The LORD says”) after the first two Latin words in the psalm. I’ve chosen Caravaggio’s strange Nativity scene, which anachronistically features Saints Francis and Lawrence, to help us to reflect on the wonder that this mighty king chose to come as a tiny baby. Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro lighting manages to hihglight Jesus’ face without resorting to the artistic cliches of his day. The presence of two saints known for their love of the poor seems fitting for this simple, peasant scene into which the king of all creation chose to come to earth.

Sit at my right hand

All earth is your footstool;
soon so will your enemies be too.
Yet You sit at our feet, minuscule, helpless,
Creator on the floor of creation,
infinite made finite,
the dew of your youth around you on the hay.

Judge of the nations: the nations come
to see your defenseless form, to catch
the future glory in your minute moment.
Where is your sceptre? You drink
from your mother’s breast; cannot
yet lift your head, nor fight.

Await the voice: “Sit at my right hand.”
But first you will cry, “I thirst”,
and, “It is finished,” and, “My God,
my God, why?” Heaven surrounds you,
but first the sword and the nails.
First the manger, this moment in eternity’s grasp.

Christmas 8: Order my beginning

Cornelis_de_Vos_-_Mysteries_of_the_Rosary,_Presentation_of_Jesus_at_the_temple (1)
Cornelis de Vos, “Mysteries of the Rosary: Presentation of Jesus at the Temple”, 1620

Another year begins, and today we have a special piece of music to see in the new year: Bach’s Cantata for New Year’s Day, Part IV of his spectacular Christmas Oratorio. This cantata takes as its theme the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, but as often happens with Bach the story is explored through a number of voices who apply the story as aptly to our hearts today as for Bach’s hearers in his day. You can read the text and its translation here.


Order my beginning: For New Year’s Day

When they took him, on the eighth day,
as required by law,
with their offering of pigeons
(an allowance for the poor),

there was nothing about them
to startle the eye,
the custom being usual,
his name ordinary.

Yet the many other Yeshuas
in Bethlehem alone
were named looking backwards,
to a hero long gone.

This child looked forward.
His saving acts stood
in the imminent future,
with an immanent God.

No wonder the marvel,
the gathering throng,
the prophecies spoken,
the singing of songs,

and me on the sidelines,
praising and yet
reluctant to settle,
still hedging my bets.

Does salvation start here?
No, it’s as ancient as Him,
but it reignites dulled hearts
and lights growing dim.

O order my days here,
my thoughts and my sight.
My years will be nothing
save He sets them right.

Lent: Enough 1

Hold tight. Hold me tight:
what coverings I have sought,
     what fig-leaves,
cannot disguise my nakedness.
My shame burns garments – yet
You clothe in righteousness.
            Hold tight.
Hold me tight; You are enough,
yet I am afraid, and turn
to fig-leaves when rightly I should
   bathe myself in You.
O Lamb, my joy, my garment of blood,
               hold tight.
         O hold me tight.

J.S. Bach / Ich habe genug, BWV 8 (Herreweghe): https://youtu.be/XopQG0Gjgmo

Lent: The Wait, the Weight 1

Waves drag, anchor fails –
my God my God why

In this torpor, what lifts?
The heart, bird-like, hovers –
an albatross, a vulture?
Yet a dove dives deep and holds;
it coos what cannot be cried.

My God my God why
– too heavy for words, yet hands can be raised,
barely, above the waves.
This is enough. Moan, wail, cry.
Words are not needed where the Spirit has flight.

Trust, and open your drowning arms.

Learning Bach

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Moments of success are rare:
arpeggio-dances, impossible harmonies,
the sound as simple as the wind
yet execution like a fear -
fingers always forgetting how,
only ever stumbling on
success. Evasive moments of
perfect beauty capture souls
yet pass with sudden fumbles and
flustering confusion when
the movement of the hands cannot
so perfectly attune the spheres
as in the neat, transcribed intent.
Still, when all's aligned,
however brief, the sound
sings and motions, like
silence, like heart,
mouth, deed and life in tune,
the dance exact.
The joy remains.

Epiphany: To an unknown painter

Unknown 16th century German painter, Wikimedia Commons
Unknown 16th century German painter, Wikimedia Commons

Too regal:
There were no drapes to hail Him king,
no cherubim in the background, aloft,
casually decking the scene, mid-song.

Yet this is right: if there were crowns,
they would be laid at His feet; and knees,
if wise, would know to bend.

We foresee the pious, in the corners, turned
toward their future king; and a long journey figured
in streets and hills, and horses mounting them.

The light’s far off, yet faces seem illumined.
Only the darker ones lack light: an error, this.
Epiphany brightens most the faces least expected here.

Not contained: the cost, the snorts of Herod,
the proud reflex to kill. All this smarts, demands
pensive faces show contrition to be brought here.

Is there room for us? We have no robes, King.
And yet, if cattle may rest above the frankincense,

we may also bow and drink Your light.