“What can I give him,
Poor as I am?”
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.
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
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.
On this night in Shakespeare’s day, there would have been wild revelry to celebrate the twelfth night of Christmas. He even named one of his plays this, a sign perhaps that it was to be performed on the twelfth night, but also a possible nod to the ways that Christmas switches around our ideas of wisdom and foolishness, poverty and wealth. This same inversion is captured for me in the wondrously celebratory first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, a piece which surprises listeners by placing the recorder, not usually a solo instrument, alongside the violin. It isn’t a Christmas carol in any sense, but I think it’s still a fitting conclusion to our early music Christmas season. It also works well as a soundtrack to one of our texts for today, Proverbs 22:2, which says, “The rich and poor meet together: the LORD is the maker of them.”
“The rich and poor meet together”
Hear this: it’s singing,
Nothing is as you have thought it to be.
Listen: the king is
enthroned, he is ruling.
Yet see how he rules, how he lays down his crown.
Watch this: the minstrels
sit at the king’s table.
See how the courtiers have no place to lounge.
are trilling in triumph.
Come to the feast! (Leave your privilege behind.)
“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.
Another year begins, and today we have a special piece of music to see in the new year: Bach’s Cantata for New Year’s Day, Part IV of his spectacular Christmas Oratorio. This cantata takes as its theme the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, but as often happens with Bach the story is explored through a number of voices who apply the story as aptly to our hearts today as for Bach’s hearers in his day. You can read the text and its translation here.
Order my beginning: For New Year’s Day
When they took him, on the eighth day,
as required by law,
with their offering of pigeons
(an allowance for the poor),
there was nothing about them
to startle the eye,
the custom being usual,
his name ordinary.
Yet the many other Yeshuas
in Bethlehem alone
were named looking backwards,
to a hero long gone.
This child looked forward.
His saving acts stood
in the imminent future,
with an immanent God.
No wonder the marvel,
the gathering throng,
the prophecies spoken,
the singing of songs,
and me on the sidelines,
praising and yet
reluctant to settle,
still hedging my bets.
Does salvation start here?
No, it’s as ancient as Him,
but it reignites dulled hearts
and lights growing dim.
O order my days here,
my thoughts and my sight.
My years will be nothing
save He sets them right.
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.
As well as being the day when my true love sent me three French hens, the third day of Christmas traditionally remembers St John the Evangelist, who contrasts with Stephen the martyr for being the only one of the apostles not be martyred. He also saw the glories ahead revealed to him when imprisoned for following Jesus, and was perhaps the best theologian of the Incarnation in the New Testament. Today’s poem takes as its inspiration an old Gregorian chant for the Feast of St John, as well as the reading for the day, 1 John 1:1-4.
On the Lord’s Day, in rapture,
the beloved disciple
beheld Him in glory
who once walked beside Him.
And did he recognise Him,
that beloved disciple?
So changed into glory
was this one like a brother.
Now a glorious saviour,
that disciple’s Beloved
called the prisoned to rapture,
in renewing of all things.
Did he think of the meals shared,
that beloved disciple?
Did he think of the dust and
the waters of washing?
Remember the glories,
O beloved disciples,
When walking where Christ trod,
When fading, no rapture.
the eyes that beheld Him.
Await His swift coming;
tune ears to His feet.
Today, as well as the day for the year’s biggest sales, is also Boxing Day and, as the mysterious carol “Good King Wenceslas” should remind us, St Stephen’s Day. Most likely the Stephen commemorated today was the one martyred in the Acts of the Apostles, so one tradition of today is to sing carols that remind us of his faith. It’s also a day traditionally not about spending but of giving: boxing up gifts to give to the poor, hence the name “Boxing Day”. Today’s poem, for the second day of Christmas, draws together these themes, via an old St Stephen’s Day carol of indeterminate age, played beautifully in this version.
Never Faint Nor Fear
The tree still stands, the presents gone;
They’re boxed and put away.
We rest our feet and pick at food
Left over from yesterday.
Saint Václav and his squire walk
Through snow and in Christ’s footsteps;
We follow signs instead that tell
Of bargains and tax offsets.
If Stephen sat amongst us here,
He’d wonder at our tinsel.
The red, perhaps, foreshadows blood?
So sing the old-time minstrels.
O never faint, and never fear,
Unless your debt be looming.
Pay back your credit card and watch
The lowly rose e’er blooming.
The child soon will mount the cross;
How well St Stephen knew this.
Yet do not dwell so long on that,
Lest it should ruin Christmas.
Instead, you might behold the sight:
The Son of Man is shining.
He climbed the tree, for you, for me,
In sin and error pining.
It is not yours to climb, and yet
The grace may prove contagious.
Let Christmas drive you out in storms
With love and gifts outrageous.
As an Anglican myself, I have to say that our literary exports don’t get much better than Christina Rossetti. Granted, she’s in formidable company, alongside George Herbert, John Donne, William Cowper, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas (why did you need to have the middle initial S in order to be a successful 20th-century Anglican poet?). Yet Rossetti is special for a bunch of reasons. She stands to this day as one of the most important female writers of her day – no small claim when you think of some of the writers she shared an era with – and has a remarkable balance of spiritual richness and honest as well as transcendental exploration of life that makes her successful not just as a writer of faith but also as a poet. She endured much in her life and produced poetry of only increasing beauty through that life, growing both in honesty and grace as a writer. It’s fitting, therefore, that she has a day in the Church of England calendar in her memory. It isn’t celebrated in the Anglican Church of Australia, but I can’t let a minor feast day for a beloved writer go by without writing something to honour it. So here is a poem in memory of an amazing woman, Anglican and poet.
The Language of Flowers
There it was,
in your garden, amidst
bleeding cyclamen, besides
burdened burdock and a trampled
patch of furze and hyacinth.
Ivy was torn
where you cut through the garden;
juniper drooped and lilac sank.
Yet, then you spied the valley lily
growing where it should not grow,
and a shock of eglantine.
Soft, you thought:
“I planted cyclamen to say, I must wait. I gathered
burdock with its spines to say, This is done. So go away.
I am done with artifice;
clematis I will rip from soil.
With dogwood, I am durable.
I cannot plant much else.”
Yet there it stood,
unplanted, unthought. When you went
to pluck a thorn to pierce
a puffed-up dream, you found instead
in varied purple-yellow-white
the heartsease for your sleep, and found
a day-bloom burst from night.
You had ripped
your palace down. There was no place
to lay your head but grass and weed.
Yet on that bed of purple light,
you dropped to rest your heart.