after the kids are asleep
and the day's tidy-up's done,
unresolved jobs and
positive dispersal of yeast through
of friend in need, kneading
of this or that hope,
pounding heaven's door like a breadboard,
pounding grace into slack
and crumbling day,
pounding the gate
of coming kingdom,
pounding the weight of the season,
the wait of the harvest,
the slowness of leaven,
the tarrying rise.
Dough sits before the heater.
The day's done, and morning
will show what will rise,
what still waits.
“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”
If even the sparrow has a home near the altar,
how much more the priest, killed there by the king’s men,
who, though the king’s drinking chum, could not be bought,
fearing God more than crown?
If the day is coming when whispers will be shouts
and the secretive heart will have its chambers turned out,
then how much more will the faithful ones shine
who did not take hold of the throne?
And if turbulent priests are quickly snuffed out,
how much will their turbulence resound
when God born as child, king born to die,
divides truth from clanging gong?
Sold with a mutter, Becket still shouts.
The Truth wins the heart, wins the night.
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.
“The LORD says to my Lord…” (Psalm 110:1). These are surely some of the more mysterious words to appear in the Bible. Who is the second Lord to whom the writer, King David, is referring? Who could even be understood to be David’s Lord apart from God, the LORD? David, after all, was king of all Israel; no-one beside God was higher than him. And yet he looks to another Lord who will be made king over everything and who, mysteriously, will also be a priest forever too. In Jesus, the mystery is, if not resolved, at least given flesh so we can behold it.
Today’s piece is Vivaldi’s powerful setting of Psalm 110, entitled “Dixit Dominus” (“The LORD says”) after the first two Latin words in the psalm. I’ve chosen Caravaggio’s strange Nativity scene, which anachronistically features Saints Francis and Lawrence, to help us to reflect on the wonder that this mighty king chose to come as a tiny baby. Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro lighting manages to hihglight Jesus’ face without resorting to the artistic cliches of his day. The presence of two saints known for their love of the poor seems fitting for this simple, peasant scene into which the king of all creation chose to come to earth.
Sit at my right hand
All earth is your footstool;
soon so will your enemies be too.
Yet You sit at our feet, minuscule, helpless,
Creator on the floor of creation,
infinite made finite,
the dew of your youth around you on the hay.
Judge of the nations: the nations come
to see your defenseless form, to catch
the future glory in your minute moment.
Where is your sceptre? You drink
from your mother’s breast; cannot
yet lift your head, nor fight.
Await the voice: “Sit at my right hand.”
But first you will cry, “I thirst”,
and, “It is finished,” and, “My God,
my God, why?” Heaven surrounds you,
but first the sword and the nails.
First the manger, this moment in eternity’s grasp.
The child interrupts
the daily graze of life,
of a quiet night in the fields.
The child demands
following the angel’s call
in evening disquiet.
The child enters
the simple: cries, shivers,
needs food and warmth,
yet transforms it all.
The child fulfils
of longing, of waiting:
consoles, answers, pierces;
a sword, a king, a child.
Will God allow our disobedience and idolatry to go unpunished?
No, every sin is against the sovereignty, holiness, and goodness of God, and against his righteous law, and God is righteously angry with our sins and will punish them in his just judgment both in this life, and in the life to come.
(New City Catechism)
Goodness, then, is broken –
innocence lost –
Order, now disrupted, tends to judgment.
All creation groans;
its creatures turn
against us now.
Righteous truth burns us when it shines.
We hide among the leaves
yet storms will snap
and fire will reveal
what the life to come cannot contain.
Eden fractured, life stained:
what did we expect
who had all good
at fingertips and crushed it with greed?
And it will reveal
who has taken talents, hid
them in the frugal field,
who has sown what has been given
and let small things grow.
And it will reveal
the hearts of those who plant and reap,
the hearts of servants great
and small, the motives of the heart’s
dark countries. The light
will reveal, it will
shine into chasms, abscesses,
show forth the truth of what
we did while left unto our own
devices and desires. Let
the truth shine brightly in.
Look, the son comes;
the farmers steam at the sight.
The vineyard is theirs! He has no place.
Stone the son; kill the heir.
The vineyard is red with blood.
Look, the Son comes;
the farmers quake at the sight.
Rejected, now the cornerstone:
the vineyard’s his. He takes His place.
The blood-red Son ascends.
The blind, the lame, are let inside;
the cursed now are blessed.
The king in triumph rides upon
a humble donkey’s colt.
The temple tables overturned,
the mind thrown into chaos,
prophecies are rendered true
in ways that chill our hearts.
The unexpected king burns bright
with anger at the sham.
He knows the depths of truest Law
And what is this that we now hear?
The workers who arrived too late –
the lazy, the beggars, the weak, the lame –
have won the Master’s favour and
have earned equal pay.
What is this that he proclaims,
this carpenter with hands of dust?
The children step aside while dogs
who surely are not fit for crumbs
have places at the feast.
The first are last, the last are first;
grumbles sound in stony hearts.
But broken hearts which yawn and weep
abound in joy, and even stone
can soon be rolled away.