Ordinary Wednesday: In due season

My eldest is a budding geographer. At nearly four years of age he loves reading books about the earth and its continents, its flora and fauna. We often find ourselves having quite technical discussions about the reasons why some plant or animal species are dying out, or why we have seasons. The seasons have been of particular interest ever since 2020 when every change in the seasons was of immense interest, being all we had to look at. He also knows that, while his mother and brothers’ birthdays are in autumn and mine is in winter, his is in spring, and so he can’t wait for the spring.

I for one am fond of winter. Perhaps it comes from the snow of fabled memory from the week I was born. Perhaps, being of more melancholy and introverted disposition, I like the feeling that Christina Rossetti expressed in her poem “Winter: My Secret” of being safely bundled up away from prying eyes and summery excess. Perhaps I just love winter because it’s when my birthday falls. But as I have taught my son about the seasons I have been struck by the way that winter is a gift. Human life – in fact, all life – exists on earth because of the so-called “Goldilocks zone” that our planet occupies in relation to the Sun, being neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to be found. Winter lets plants rest. It lets our half of the planet cool. It lets animals conserve energy and hibernate. Winter teaches us to pause and trust.

A perfect place in scripture to turn to in Ordinary Time is Psalm 145, one of the tenderest descriptions of a creator God providing for the planet that He chose to teem with life. In verses 15 to 16we read these wonderful words:

The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

In other translations “at the proper time” is rendered “in due season”. Sir Humphrey would say, “When the time is right”. God, fortunately, knows just when that is for each of us. He keeps Emperor penguins huddled together to survive the long Antarctic dark. He opens up snowdrops and early cheer to point to the arrival of spring. He makes some fruit to arrive in summer, some autumn, some winter. He carried the Kaputar pink slug through horrific bushfires (look it up!) and gives each of us the right things for the right season.

Not everyone is comforted by winter as I am, I know. But for my fellow inhabitants of Earth’s southern half, let me encourage us to remember the God of the “proper time”, the one who “upholds all who fall
and lifts up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14). We could also say all who freeze or hibernate. God who positioned our orbit for life knows our seasons, knows the days that give us life and the days that grieve us, and we can look to Him to feed us through it all.

Yet

…my road,
My rugged way to heaven, please God.
(Christina Rossetti, “Old and New Year Ditties”)

Sometimes a harvest, sometimes fallow,
sometimes Job’s cut-down tree,
the year passes in a sighing nonetheless,
a barely whispered “Yet”:

yet this is not all,
this is not how all years shall go,
this is not the only movement that time possesses for us,
this is not the only sun our earth will orbit ’round,
this is not the end of years,
this is not the ground.

Tomorrow await ever-new mercies;
tomorrow see what tarries yet
will surely not delay.

Advent 24: Incarnate

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon…
(Christina Rossetti, “Christmas Eve”)

Minutes before the shops shut, I walked
supermarket aisles with other forgetful ones,
gleaning the last sheaves of festive cheer
while the muzak paused to say it was time.
And two millennia ago, a carpenter and his pregnant bride
found themselves strapped for place and time,
entering mess and forgetfulness,
and God came into the dark.

And driving home I passed the lights of the street,
dazzling with their explosive brightness.
It all leads here: tomorrow shops will shut, corks will pop,
paper will rustle in symphonic joy.
And in a manger God chose the dark,
the small forgotten things, and still,
still He comes into the dark.
Our lights are too bright to see Him.

Advent 20: and earth shall melt away

…heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign…
(Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”)

While fires burned, I retreated
to safer, internal climes, denying heat.
Discomfort seemed unreasonable,
inconvenient that we should be so troubled.
Yet world rarely does as it’s told,
pointing a finger at us as we point back at it.
If world won’t be bullied, how much less so God
who bursts mightier than fire
and shakes out our smug contentment
with the mountains and the stars.
If earth will melt, how much more our pride
when kingdom comes in blaze,
in goodness?

Advent 18: Longing

How long shall I long in vain?
(Christina Rossetti, “Of Him That Was Ready to Perish”)

And so we are not ready,
too full of dross and dust,
too much in need of refining fire
to enter a purity our kind spoilt long ago.

Nor is it ready for us,
nor is the day ripe,
for patient salvation beckons
while a kingdom of misfits slowly heeds the call.

And, in our waiting, fire cleanses:
in expectation, yes, but also in doubt,
in anguish and breathlessness and all the daily ache
that drives our longing ever more to be clean.

In all our midnight prayers and wrestling,
all our broken hips and pride,
all our cries – How long, how long?
in all this our souls will prepare.

Advent 12: You are in the wilderness

For Thou art in the wilderness
Drawing and leading Thine Own love…
(Christina Rossetti, “The Chiefest Among Ten Thousand”)

The barren land will bear fruit
but now, in this waiting time, I must go
where barrenness still lingers
to meet with You who chose this
of all the compass points in creation,
of every nook of the ever-expanding universe –
chose this place, and this flesh.
I will go where You are found
and I will go to find Your face,
the Rose of Sharon set against the thistles,
the morning sun at heat of day.

Advent 9: No despair

...we are almost ready to fall in love with our own desolation.
(Christina Rossetti, Seek and Find)

Whether height of summer or bleak midwinter, there’s death:
in bare-branched trees or brittle grass.
Fire or frost, the end’s the same,
both killers and destroyers alike.
And the greatest foe of all’s despair,
the sickness blighting not only this
but every future season’s crop.
There’s a sickness that can end in life,
that kills illusions, opens eyes.
Wisest farmers wait their time
and learn the seasons’ darkest signs.
Wiser still the one who turns
despair of here to hope beyond.

Epiphany: Heartshine

“What can I give him,
Poor as I am?”
Christina Rossetti

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.

Heartshine

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
this treasure-trove
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.

The Language of Flowers: For Christina Rossetti

As an Anglican myself, I have to say that our literary exports don’t get much better than Christina Rossetti. Granted, she’s in formidable company, alongside George Herbert, John Donne, William Cowper, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas (why did you need to have the middle initial S in order to be a successful 20th-century Anglican poet?). Yet Rossetti is special for a bunch of reasons. She stands to this day as one of the most important female writers of her day – no small claim when you think of some of the writers she shared an era with – and has a remarkable balance of spiritual richness and honest as well as transcendental exploration of life that makes her successful not just as a writer of faith but also as a poet. She endured much in her life and produced poetry of only increasing beauty through that life, growing both in honesty and grace as a writer. It’s fitting, therefore, that she has a day in the Church of England calendar in her memory. It isn’t celebrated in the Anglican Church of Australia, but I can’t let a minor feast day for a beloved writer go by without writing something to honour it. So here is a poem in memory of an amazing woman, Anglican and poet.

The Language of Flowers

There it was,
in your garden, amidst220px-Violatricolorarvensis.jpg
bleeding cyclamen, besides
burdened burdock and a trampled
patch of furze and hyacinth.

Ivy was torn
where you cut through the garden;
juniper drooped and lilac sank.
Yet, then you spied the valley lily
growing where it should not grow,
and a shock of eglantine.

Soft, you thought:
“I planted cyclamen to say,
I must wait. I gathered
burdock with its spines to say,
This is done. So go away.
I am done with artifice;
clematis I will rip from soil.
With dogwood, I am durable.
I cannot plant much else.”

Yet there it stood,
unplanted, unthought. When you went
to pluck a thorn to pierce
a puffed-up dream, you found instead
in varied purple-yellow-white
the heartsease for your sleep, and found
a day-bloom burst from night.

You had ripped
your palace down. There was no place
to lay your head but grass and weed.
Yet on that bed of purple light,
you dropped to rest your heart.

No Ghosts This Year Concludes, and a Christmas Gift

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Well, today is the last day of Advent, and so it is time for me to wrap up my Advent story for the year. If you’ve been following the story so far, you can read the last instalment below. But, if you’re new to this year’s story you can read the rest of it, plus my two previous Advent Stories, “The Gift” and “Pageant”, in this free downloadable PDF of the three stories, together for the first time. I hope the stories can be a blessing to you and to anyone else you choose to share them with. Have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the goodness of God in coming to live as one of us.

 


 

When the police officer visited him in his hospital room and showed him a photo that he did not recognise – seemingly of the man the police suspected – she said, “I didn’t think he was your man.” And then she had spoken to his parents, who stood at the foot of the bed. “He’s already confessed,” she said. “And there’s not a chance that he was the man your son saw.”

And, while the explanation helped – that the man at 12 Burden Street had been killed by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who knew the house well and had no need of directions from a thirteen-year-old in the street – and while the panic had subsided and the ghost-court had gone into recess, it had all only been replaced by a new flurry of unfamiliar action: group therapy sessions, individual therapy sessions, silent and unsteady walks around the hospital grounds, rooms filled with pamphlets and booklets with names like, Understanding OCD and The Way Out of Obsessions and Compulsions. Sometimes, when his parents thought he was asleep, he saw them reading the material together, stony-faced, whispering concerns to one another. But when he was awake they would tauten out their voices, as though stretching tired muscles, and say unnatural things like, “How are you going, big fella?” or, “Can we get you anything, honey?”, calling him names they never normally called him and adopting faces that said, Everything’s okay, which they had never felt the need to say before for never having feared that it wasn’t.

And then there had been Laura’s visit, with a bunch of flowers and a card from his class, her dad awkwardly in tow behind her. She had perched next to him at the end of the couch in his room and together they had tried to find words to say and found none, finding only a silence that was, for that moment, the most comforting thing anyone had said. And then she had leant over to hug him and he had felt her breath in his ear and smelt her shampoo and when she left his heart could not stop pounding and he had no idea where to begin thinking.

And Pa, too, always Pa, with books that he had “found somewhere” (the endless supply of books that man had! how did they all fit in his caravan, 0r in the handful of boxes in the attic?). Pa, with old jokes and hand-me-down stories. Pa, with, “Well, you’ve got your two front teeth, so what else do you want for Christmas this year?” And his dad saying, “You’ll be home by Christmas, the doctors reckon.” And his mum saying, “Greg, they’re not sure.” And Pa saying, “Well, we’ll just have to throw a party for you wherever you are.”

And then silence, a breather in the afternoon when they left him alone, no flurry of action, no therapists, no doctors. And then he would take out the treasury of stories that Pa had given him that night, and he would look again, again, at the strange, bewitching words of the Christina Rossetti poem Pa had found for him to read:

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned 

And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.

The end of all things? he would wonder. Or only the end of the ghosts, of the fear, of hospital rooms and this newly-named, old familiar thing they called OCD? Hell looms vast, he read. He knew that well. But Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small. Great and small. Which was he? The vacuum was great, and he was small.

The silence always passed before he could complete the thought. Soon there was a parent, or a concerned aunt, or cousin, or a therapist or nurse coming to check something or give some reassuring thought, and the poem would have to wait, expectant somewhere hovering around his bed. He knew he would return to it soon, as soon as he had the chance, and that it promised an answer if only he could listen, and promised something more comforting than sleep, if only he could grasp it beneath the sheets and hold it to him as he lay.

“What do you want for Christmas?” the nurses always asked. Everyone asked that, as though Christmas presents alone could remedy all ills. Every year before this one he had had a wish-list that he’d subtly present to his parents, mostly books. This year, he had no thoughts, except one; and silently each time he would say that same thought, deep in his mind, where only something truly silent and reverberating could be heard. “No ghosts,” he would say, half-statement, half-request. “No more ghosts, please, this year.”