Christmas 11: Upsidedown

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Rembrandt, “The Flight into Egypt: a night piece”, from a print made by Henri Louis Basan, c. 1810

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.

Upsidedown

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.

Christmas 10: Sit at my right hand

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Caravaggio, “Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence”, 1609.

“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.

Luke 2: The Shepherds and the Temple

Rembrandt van Rijn - Adoration of the Shepherds
Rembrandt van Rijn – Adoration of the Shepherds

 

The child interrupts
           commerce,
                 the daily graze of life,
                            the expectations
                 of a quiet night in the fields.

The child demands
            leaving flocks,
                  abandoning norms,
                         following the angel’s call
                     in evening disquiet.

The child enters
            the daily,
                   the simple: cries, shivers,
                          needs food and warmth,
                      yet transforms it all.

The child fulfils
            centuries
                  of longing, of waiting:
                        consoles, answers, pierces;
                      a sword, a king, a child.

Catechism 18

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 –
                        holiness offended.
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?

Lent 36: Wednesday of Fifth Week

 

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.

Lent 30: Thursday of Fourth Week

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.

Lent 29: Wednesday of Fourth Week

Detail from Rembrandt van Rijn, "Christ Driving Money Changes from the Temple"
Detail from Rembrandt van Rijn, “Christ Driving Money Changes from the Temple”

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 dies to see it kept.