History has few exemplars to be proud of.
The Greeks did well with Priam, at least,
willing to face “iron-hearted,
man-slaying Achilles” for the sake of a son.
My own culture’s replete with absent men,
“bronze Anzacs” taught from birth not to cry.
The Biblical witness, too, leaves something to be desired:
most too busy with wives in multiples to see
sons ganging up on sons, hurling into ditches,
covering many-coloured garments with blood.
Some simply could not hear, over
the chewing of fruit, the sound of the older
saying to the younger brother, “Come for a walk.”
One king learnt too late that all
the years at war, or watching rooftop baths,
did not teach a son to trust or respect his old man.
Only this cry rings out as a lesson: “Absalom,
my son, my son! Would that it were me instead of you.
Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom, my son!”
Perhaps the polygamists, war-mongers and liars
have this to teach us: the insufficiency of one
man of dust to be the all, the end, of the home.
In his frailty and deceit he clears the way
for another tale, another sight:
the wealthy man embracing pig-stained rags,
the fattened calf killed,
the Father’s arms stretched.
This witness alone can teach the twisted tongue
the meaning of our faintly-voiced, “Father.”
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.
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.
One of the great mysteries and wonders that we can be reflecting on this Advent season is the Incarnation: the mystery that the God of the universe would become a human, even a defenceless baby. To explore this mystery, Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who loves a poor and humble girl and wants her to be lifted by his love, not always ashamed of the difference between them. Here is a slightly playful, poetic translation of the story. You can find fuller, more accurate renditions of it in abundance online, but they often leave out the playfulness of Kierkegaard’s style. So here is my offering, for what it is worth. May it give some food for thought this advent.
You ask me how God might be teacher
you ask how His love might drive Him to teach.
You ask how His Love could love over vast distance
as divides all low learners from this teacher of Love?
Well, once upon a time, a king loved a maiden –
No, wait! Is this kids’ stuff?
A fairy tale? Where
is the systematic doctrine?
Well, so thought old Athens, when Socrates spoke
of food, and drink, and doctors, and trifles;
I wish I could only speak of such trifles,
for we all, from birth, understand food and drink
(and the need to see doctors)
and the high ways of kings are so often removed
from the eating and drinking of mere men.
But let us move on; we mustn’t get stuck.
A king loved a maiden; let’s leave it like that.
And this king, unlike poets, was not tied up tight
with the “wisdom” that hampers clear-headedness; he
loved that low maiden (this much we’ve seen),
and he loved her without the High Rule of a king.
His courtiers said, What a favour the king
will bestow on the low one! These words made him sick.
They drove him to fury; that wasn’t his love.
He would love her, this maiden,
such that she’d never see
a high, lofty patron,
a detached, distant king.
Impossible! say the king’s courtiers. You
are the king! Overshadow her
with your king’s grandeur!
Make her feel lowly! Unworthy! You’re king!
How can Love straddle
the high and low yet
not overshadow the low into their grave?
Love must become
like the lowly it loves.
The teacher must be like the student;
must make Himself low
like the maiden.
(Adapted and translated from Søren Kierkegaard, “God as Teacher and Saviour (Guden som Lærer og Frelser)”, from Philosophical Fragments (Philosophiske Smuler), http://sks.dk/ps/txt.xml)