We cut banana leaf from our backyard and dress
the table with these fronds for a king.
Day is overcast; spirit drizzles with
the quiet acedia of another quarantined day.
No procession today, on this or any street;
only hearts can fling wide their gates.
Yet heart has always been best, been the most
fitting place to worship this king,
temples prone to moneychangers,
guards of honour prone to deceit.
If heart must change, whatever the location,
let us begin with hearts only;
all else is stripped away.
There were perhaps others
on the look-out for kings that day,
scouring the glossy mags,
checking out the trendy spots,
tracking every star on the rise.
It was easy enough with the census on
and everyone back to their homes,
easy to know who would be where
(and no-one who was anyone would ever be there,
in a no-name backwater, in a cave full of stock feed).
Busily tracking celebrities’ tweets,
they would have missed
the teenage mother and her sheepish bloke
(not even the father, the word on the street went),
whose eyes were careworn enough to spot
the angel singing praise, whose knees
were weathered enough to bend with heaven’s wind,
and whose minds, trained to recall
their Shepherd’s Almanac of facts,
had not forgotten the promised day
when lion and lamb would meet as friends,
and a little child would lead.
One of the more curious lost phenomena of Christmas was the late Medieval custom of appointing a so-called “Lord of Misrule” (or, as called in Scotland, the “Abbot of Unreason”). This involved either a peasant or an unimportant figure in the church being appointed to oversee the Christmas revelries. A related or parallel custom involved appointing a “boy bishop”, a child who would be bishop for the duration of the Christmas season. The “misrule” over which the Lord of Misrule ruled was sufficiently baudy that the Protestant Tudor rulers, as part of their cleaning up of the English church, saw fit to abolish the custom (although the Catholic Tudor, Mary I, saw fit to reinstate it). Yet there’s an unexpected biblical truth contained in the custom: that human rule is turned upside down by the coming of a baby king into the world who, though born a peasant, was God Himself.
As we approach Epiphany (this Saturday), the daily readings remind us of the ways that the wisdom of the world is different to the wisdom of God (expressed by the wise men finding the heavenly king not with Herod but in peasant Bethlehem). Today’s poem takes as its inspiration the rollicking Medieval song, “Lux Hodie, Orientus Partibus”, a joyful song about a powerful donkey carrying a king. It’s in these kinds of moments that I think the Medieval church remembered something about the truth of Christmas that we would do well to remember today.
You who would be wise, take heed:
the king lies in a peasant’s bed.
You who would be great, take heed:
He takes a donkey as His steed.
You who would follow Him, take heed:
His throne’s a cross, a cursed tree.
You who would find life, take heed:
true life must die first, as a seed.
You who would be wise, take heed:
most blessed is this bruised reed.
In your majesty ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness…
God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
(Psalm 45:4a, 7b)
Do not be deceived. He comes in meekness
now to expose the proud. He sleeps among
the donkeys and cattle now; soon the throng
of pilgrims will see Him ride, not in weakness,
but in true majesty. Do you seek this
or to be told that you are never wrong?
He will ride again; it will not be long,
and you will not dismiss His forgiveness.
Who you reject tonight will call to account
when He rides in all the glory of day.
His light beckons us in the eastern sky,
yet many despise its slow, meek way.
Look to the wise. Bow before the child;
there is room for your mess and your doubt.
…as if He were a seed in our garden,
or a small flash of light for our pupil,
He shone forth and diffused and filled the earth.
(Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns for the Nativity)
Days crack like soil.
In the parts of the world where summer parches
we wait like potholes for the rain.
December’s slow refrain is singing
songs that speak of joy. Repeat
the sound of joy, though it may cloy
against the tune of years. We see
the line of kings; the throne, the rings
disappoint. The crown is twisted;
what can grow between these thorns?
A king, smaller than a seed
and vaster than the spheres.
There were no drapes to hail Him king,
no cherubim in the background, aloft,
casually decking the scene, mid-song.
Yet this is right: if there were crowns,
they would be laid at His feet; and knees,
if wise, would know to bend.
We foresee the pious, in the corners, turned
toward their future king; and a long journey figured
in streets and hills, and horses mounting them.
The light’s far off, yet faces seem illumined.
Only the darker ones lack light: an error, this.
Epiphany brightens most the faces least expected here.
Not contained: the cost, the snorts of Herod,
the proud reflex to kill. All this smarts, demands
pensive faces show contrition to be brought here.
Is there room for us? We have no robes, King.
And yet, if cattle may rest above the frankincense,
we may also bow and drink Your light.
And He reigns!
He reigns in light and in quiet,
in death and in life,
in depth and in height.
He reigns in plenty,
He reigns in drought.
He reigns in our faith, reigns in our doubt
and nothing is too big for Him
who rose from death a shining King…
Put to death your anguished griefs:
the king who died now lives again
and all time’s tattered woes and fears
can no longer bind His faithful sons.
The moment in the Easter narrative that always captures my attention most powerfully is the story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as king yet his death from that moment assured. This is the theme of today’s Page CXVI song, the beautiful “This Blessed Day”, accompanied by my new poem for the day. May both help us draw nearer to our servant king this Lent.
Sunday Before Lent Sons of men: the king is here; he calls, he calls your crowns and songs – Daughters, sing: behold him come; he rides, he rides adorned in humble praise – Prepare the way: lay your crowns, lay your palms, lay your souls, your soles, your steps toward him – Behold his crown: adorned with thorns. Behold his brow, adorned with shame. Behold him ride – Hosanna, praise: the king who rides, who writhes, who prays forgiveness in His name.