“…and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Emmaus 3)

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Caravaggio, “The Supper at Emmaus”, c.1606

How like him to appear this way:
a walk alongside the mourners,
an attentive ear, a willingness to linger,
and then – the climax –
seated at table,
bread, the beloved symbol, poised in hand,
and at its breaking
all finally clear.

How like him
who broke bread with Zaccheus,
with Levi, with Judas.
How very like the bread Himself
to be broken, then to be known.

Chiaroscuro

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Caravaggio, “The Supper at Emmaus”, c.1606

To Cleopas and his friend,
the revelation and its impact no doubt stuck.
Their paradigm, irremediably shifted, could hardly go back.
Such things as resurrections we don’t
forget in any hurry.

Yet for those serving at table, I wonder:
did the light dawn so quickly, so decisively?
More or less a normal night’s work,
and that constant attempt not to eavesdrop
or at least not be seen doing so.

And then, some vague but growing sense
that here was a light altogether different in quality,
such that everything else was jet in the background,
that here was a customer who transformed the meals he ate
and left behind more than he took.

Perhaps, on the table,
after he left, as though spirited away,
in place of the customary tip a piece
of bread leftover, and a cup of wine,
and with the skeleton of the fish course lingering on the plate,
a parchment asking silently,
“Shall these dry bones live?”

Kyrie in the Desert

Father,
What have I done with the food you gave me?
The bread of life grows mould where I left it.
The leaven of self sickens and spoils.
Puffed up by bread alone, no Word, I am fat and famished.
In the desert of abundance,
Lord have mercy.

Brother,
All the kingdoms of the world dangle before you.
Only a bend of the knee will give them to you.
I bend at the first offer of reprieve.
Forty days can only show my nest of callow vipers.
In the desert of my failing,
Christ have mercy.

Spirit,
You flap your dove’s wings above living water,
Yet I am bent on brackish wastelands.
I draw brine and bile from my spirit’s well.
I vent spleen upon your ever-flowing fountain.
At the oasis of contrition,
Lord have mercy.

Christmas 8: Order my beginning

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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.

Christmas 7: Rejoice in your new clothes

Liber_choralis_S.Leonardi_(MCM),_XV_Gaudens_gaudebo2017 is almost over, and today we have two choral pieces to conclude our year with, one early, one modern, both settings of one of the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 61:10-62:4. The first is the delightfully joyous “Gaudens Gaudebo in Domino” by the 16th century German composer Philip Dulchius. The text comes from the opening to the song, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord”, which Mary echoes in her Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel. A modern reimagining of this text is the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s beautiful “I will greatly rejoice”, similarly jubilant but with simpler harmony. Both settings, looking not only to our own salvation but the saving of all nations, are wonderful calls to praise and prayer at the end of 2017.

Rejoice in your new clothes,
for the old is done.
The saving one has clothed you with joy
and in the bright raiment of His saving day.

Look to the east, to the west, where the sun
is rising and setting and setting the way,
where the hope of the new is calling, and calling,
where the world is enwrapping in light.

Rejoice in your new clothes;
rejoice greatly now in renewing delight.
For the old is done, the new bright as son,
bright as bridegroom and bride,

bright as the new spring in their eyes,
bright as wedding dance of old foes,
bright as the diadem in your thinning hair,
bright though the year be dimming.

Christmas 6: Nunc Dimittis

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Rembrandt van Rijn – Simeon in the Temple, 1669

The story of Simeon has given the church one of its oldest hymns, called the “Nunc Dimittis”, after the first two Latin words of the song: “Now dismiss…” There have been many musical versions of Simeon’s song, but today’s poem takes as its inspiration a modern setting by the living Swiss composer Carl Rütti. Rütti’s setting, full of dissonance and peace at the same time, perfectly captures the tension of the story, a moment of jubilation, fulfilment of age-old longing and pure relief and release. The same mood is captured for me in the painting by Rembrandt, who tackled the story of Simeon at the start and end of his career. This is the second of his versions, left unfinished at his death. Is it fitting that he never finished it? Rembrandt caught many of the most poignant moments of Scripture in a manner both raw and sublime. I personally love the second version much more than the first, though the latter is polished where the former is rough. Yet the roughness fits the theme perfectly: Simeon’s praying hands stretched out with the infant Jesus balanced over them, his eyes barely open, his mouth open just enough to say this final prayer. I’ve tried to capture some of this in today’s poem.

Nunc Dimittis

After the silence, a cascade
of wonder, of sound, of light.

Before the darkness, a sight
of promise, of presence, of peace.

And in this aching and drooping of arms,
an answer, a dimming, an eternal day.

Now dismiss. I hold the day;
I hold the way that holds me into night.

Christmas 5: Heaven’s Eternal Christmas

Puer-natus-1553-lossius-melancthon-descantToday’s reading tells the story of Jesus being presented to Simeon, the faithful follower of God who had waited in expectation of the “consolation of Israel” for all of his life and could now be “dismissed in peace”.

In keeping with this theme of “consolation” – a favourite of mine at this blog! – today’s poem is a translation of an old hymn with an interesting history. Originally the Latin hymn “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”, it got a new life in the nineteenth century thanks to another favourite of mine, the mutton-chopped pastor and poet N.F.S. Grundtvig, who translated it to make the popular Danish Christmas song, “Et barn er født i Bethlehem” (“A baby is born in Bethlehem”). Today I’m adding another layer to that translation history, with my translation of the first six verses of Grundtvig’s hymn. You can also listen to a demo recording of the song set to my own tune – not an amazing recording, sorry, but it should give you an idea of how to sing it. I’ve also repeated the first verse at the end, this time in Danish, to show how the meter works in each language. May you rejoice in the consolation of not just Israel but all the world this Christmas.

A Baby’s Born in Bethlehem

A baby’s born in Bethlehem,
So rejoice, Jerusalem.
Alleluia, alleluia…

A lowly virgin, hidden, poor,
Delivers heaven’s Son, the Lord.
Alleluia, alleluia…

In a crib they laid him down,
The angels sang a joyful sound.
Alleluia, alleluia…

And from the east, wise men sacrificed
Gold, frankincense and myrrh refined.
Alleluia, alleluia…

And now are all our trials gone,
For on this day our saviour’s born.
Alleluia, alleluia…

So God’s people, now restored, can praise
In heaven’s eternal Christmas day.
Alleluia, alleluia…