Kingdoms fall from might;
panelled houses cannot keep out the flood.
The humblest stump brings forth the branch
and a little child leads the animals’ dance.
As the baby rests its head in the nest,
the greenest hope turns to solid twig,
and then as firm and fixed branch.
Reach out: these arms reach out to hold,
to gather in what scatters far.
A little child shall lead; a man
shall climb the rugged beam.
I shame at mine unworthiness, yet fain would be at one with Thee: Thou art a joy in heaviness, a succour in necessity.
(Sir William Leighton, 1614)
Shame and joy move in polyphonic sway:
the vision delights, augments, and yet
diminishes the confidence.
How can I, with unclean lips,
hymn praises without minor chords?
Must burning lips be always scorched
for worthiness to drive the heavy soul?
The quavering voice, the riddling Me?,
the scroll that makes the sinner frown.
Seraph brings the cleansing coal,
while heaviness lags and leaves.
2017 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.
Today is perhaps the hardest day of the Christmas season, the day that remembers the story found in Matthew 2 of Herod ordering the murder of all boys under the age of 2. While this is not an aspect of the Christmas story that is often told, it finds a home in an old and melancholy song, the Coventry Carol (beautifully rendered here by the sublime Anúna). The carol, part of a medieval mystery play once regularly performed in Coventry, gives voice to three mothers who are mourning the children they will lose. Today’s poem considers these women and the promise that Jesus the Messiah would be acquainted with our griefs. It’s a story I would rather pass over, with my son only eleven weeks old as I write, but God does not pass over our deepest griefs, so I want to use this story to remind me of the fact that He hears and knows and is present in all that we cannot understand.
Come, little child,
born to die,
born to bear our griefs and die,
born to dwell with us who die,
weep with mothers now.
come dwell with us within our mess,
come hold our scars and cry our tears.
Weep with us all now.
Come, light in dark,
keep vigil now with broken hearts.
Hold all our tears within your scars
and hold us as we shake.
Arise, shine, for your light has come…
Then the Glory opens up, and the exposition begins…after the sheaves of night, the spirals of anxiety, here the triumph of love and the tears of joy – all the passion of our arms around the Invisible!…
Do you see a star unlike the others?
Have you watched through the ages, longing to see
this revelation, this epiphany?
To some without eyes, the night smothers;
and now, true, it lurks behind covers
of dark. But others, it beckons vividly:
those who press on through the dark, finally
to see the Morning resting yet nonethe-
less glorious, soon to shine all its Day
on mankind, those once far and those once near…
The silence is over; the patience yawns
for the fruits of dawn in sparkling array.
Be still before Him, newborn sons of dawn,
transfigured together, history made clear.
Indeed, my friends, let us not forget in our wakefulness…
(Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns of the Nativity)
Do I assume this peace?
Some peasants once, I am told,
when they had had enough of false liberty,
took cobblestones and made them missiles.
And men of another age were warned
that their panelled houses could fall,
while others, trusting horses,
were told whom they should fear.
For the quiet of now, give thanks.
The sun is your friend today and streets whistle with silent birdsong.
Later, I may collect chairs from the street or sit in a library to read.
But remember the shelves which Eratosthenes kept,
more famous for ruin than what they contained.
Look for the library without any walls;
look for the Word which shines like today.
Bend knees as you walk or stones will rise up.
Today’s beauty must make you bow.