Good Friday

Lent ends with a mirror:
I am the mocker, the spitter, the thief.
Like a child resenting their small role in the pageant,
I greet grace with a petulant, What about me?

This is me.
My role is the soldier with the reed and the crown,
the voice crying, Crucify! and, Messiah, come down.
I’m Judas and Pilate, am Herod, am the priests;
am the nails in the feet and the spear in the side,
am the object of all mercy’s most prodigal gifts,
am the face of Christ shining in victory.unnamed

Palm Sunday

I have been there in the festal throng,
the waving of palms,
the shouting of Psalms:
Hosanna – the highest – hosanna.

And I have felt the surge of pride
to see my king, as prophesied,
come in, triumphantly, astride
his Zechariah-steed, and I
confess that I have hoped to find
what, in the end, was more than I
had ever bargained for.

I’ve been there, too, by the fireside,
warming my hands and telling lies.
I too have hidden in the night,
afraid of my king’s disgrace.

Messiah: my soul is a fruitless figtree.
When you come to your temple, I will wither
at the sight of your certain summer.
Cast off my false foliage, and let me dwell
in your shade when you return.

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Felix Louis Leullier – Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

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.

Uncovered gems #1: Eleanor Spence, “Me and Jeshua”

“We’ll have follow-the-leader,” Jacob decided, “and Jeshua can be the leader.”
“No – you do it,” said Jeshua. “I like it better being last.”

(Eleanor Spence, Me and Jeshua, 1984)

Australian author Eleanor Spence has not been completely forgotten. Text Publishing recently reprinted her novel Lillipilly Hill as part of their Australian classics collection, and back in the 90s, she formed a reasonably large part of my primary school English education, with her books The October Child and The Leftovers both being prescribed texts. But her 1984 novel, Me and Jeshua, despite receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim, was last reprinted in 2001 and has all but completely vanished from the cultural memory.

When it came out, it was nominated for Children’s Book of the Year and, surprisingly for a mainstream author, won Christian Book of the Year for 1985. I found it in a collection of free books at the theological college where I study and, having heard of the author but not the book, was intrigued enough to take it home. And it has proven to be one of those forgotten gems that makes rummaging through old tattered books so worthwhile.

The story is written with that just-recognisable form of camouflage that allows familiar stories to become so fresh for the reader. Spence uses literal translations of all place names to make them, at first, hard to identify. Bethlehem, for instance, is called the House of Bread. And the characters of Jacob, Jude, Simon, Miriam, Josef, Elissa, Jona and, most importantly, Jeshua, take a few chapters to become familiar again to us as Jesus and his earthly family. The camouflage is aided by Spence taking the approach of making Jacob (James), Jude and Simon be Jeshua’s (Jesus’) cousins not brothers (a traditional Catholic view that allows Mary to remain a virgin after giving birth to Jesus). But, whatever reservations some readers might have with this take on the story, the rest is utterly plausible. Jude, the narrator, grows up hearing stories of his infamous but beloved aunt Miriam who conceived a child under scandalous circumstances but was married by the decent and generous Josef, and one day they return from a mysterious sojourn in Egypt to live with their family in what readers familiar with the Bible story will know to be Nazareth. Jude, learning who he is himself within his family and culture, is drawn more and more to this mysteriously wise, kind and altogether good cousin of his. Meanwhile, Jeshua must learn why he is so different to everyone else and what his true father wants him to be.

What arrested me so much about this novel was the beauty of the storytelling, influenced in no small part by the powers of Spence’s language and her evocation of place. Palestine is both palpably magical, with figs and fresh loaves you could almost pick off the page and eat, as well as torn apart by violence and poverty. Jude is a perfect narrator: aware enough of himself to be compassionate and imperfect at the same time. And Jeshua just shines: simultaneously an ordinary boy with fears and insecurities and yet good in a way that is never questioned or corrupted and – most remarkably of all – remains utterly credible.

I do not know what Spence’s personal conviction was about Jeshua the real, historical man. But in this remarkable, forgotten gem, she has made him human and glorious in a way that has drawn me anew to who He is.

“You are God’s field, God’s building” 

Good news.
He also works in earthy things:
not only stars but soil and grass,

carves churches from stone souls,
makes mud-houses whole, and knows
the ways a seed must break. Good news

that maimed bodies are his building,
that the one-eyed, the lame,
may be fed in his field,
good news that his
is the one needful Whole.

Open your sin-severed eyes.
Epiphany brighter than day is here,
bringing harvest,
ripening barns-full of all His toil.

Lent: Man of Sorrows 3

Obedience is a crown of thorns.
The earth’s the Lord’s;
He does as He pleases,
and it pleases Him to wear these thorns.

Joy set before Him, He endures;
joy not instantaneous, I yield.
Obedience is a crown of thorns,
and I despise this crown.

Go into the wilderness; see
all earth’s kingdoms laid at your feet.
The dilemma lies: your feet will crumble beneath the burden;
the true crown comes with thorns.

God does as He pleases and
it pleases Him to wear this crown.
Joy set before Him, He obeys;
the meek will take the earth.

Lent: Humility 2

Bow at His feet.
You did not come here by yourself:
your knees are weak and buckle under pride,
and joints stiffen when left to self.

The road is narrow.
You must bend and bow to walk its curves;
it will not bend itself for you
and, puffed with knowledge, you will only make it burst.

Consider Him who bore
such shame, who fell such distance,
plumbed such trenches with His perfect grace,
and all the while knew joy.

Not greater than your master,
the mountain-side is no more yours than His.
If He descends, then so must you;
low, be lower still.