Advent 11: Nunc Dimittis

My eyes have seen
yet my heart forgets,
eager to assume the worst.
I would be Simeon and yet
dismiss the word
still unfulfilled.

Only let me see, I pray,
yet choke to hear the words.
Sight is not faith; I must hold on
to all my hope deferred and keep
vigil with what mercy shows.

Do not dismiss me yet.

Christmas 8: The Name

Not an unusual name,
though a powerful one.
Many Joshuas down the street no doubt
hoped for some of their hero’s kudos:
if not the power to bring down Jericho, then at least
the nod of approval as if they could if they tried.
Yet this one would be different. No
family lineage dictating the name,
but beating wings and the memory
of a thumping heart at the dining table
as the angel had brought her his news.
He saves. A grand claim
for the eight-day-old lying
half-asleep, half-stirring
while Joseph held the pair of pigeons,
their measly offering, a gift that could
not ever suffice, would have to suffice,
though the rules were soon to change,
as the dozing Saviour surely knew.

Christmas 6: How we grow

And Mary treasured in her heart
the mystery, the sheer
beyondness of what she held and did not hold.
He already moved from her grasp,
wiser than her and Joseph combined,
outsmarting his teachers,
taking himself off for theological talks,
when she had hardly finished feeding him.
Only time stood between her and total loss, only
years before a sword would pierce
her own soul through – and his, and his.
Only ever years, and yet
these years are how we grow (for she
was the one who’d still to grow.)

Christmas 1: “A little child shall lead them…”

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),

only shepherds,
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.

Christmas 8: Order my beginning

Cornelis_de_Vos_-_Mysteries_of_the_Rosary,_Presentation_of_Jesus_at_the_temple (1)
Cornelis de Vos, “Mysteries of the Rosary: Presentation of Jesus at the Temple”, 1620

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.

Christmas 6: Nunc Dimittis

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Rembrandt van Rijn – Simeon in the Temple, 1669

The story of Simeon has given the church one of its oldest hymns, called the “Nunc Dimittis”, after the first two Latin words of the song: “Now dismiss…” There have been many musical versions of Simeon’s song, but today’s poem takes as its inspiration a modern setting by the living Swiss composer Carl Rütti. Rütti’s setting, full of dissonance and peace at the same time, perfectly captures the tension of the story, a moment of jubilation, fulfilment of age-old longing and pure relief and release. The same mood is captured for me in the painting by Rembrandt, who tackled the story of Simeon at the start and end of his career. This is the second of his versions, left unfinished at his death. Is it fitting that he never finished it? Rembrandt caught many of the most poignant moments of Scripture in a manner both raw and sublime. I personally love the second version much more than the first, though the latter is polished where the former is rough. Yet the roughness fits the theme perfectly: Simeon’s praying hands stretched out with the infant Jesus balanced over them, his eyes barely open, his mouth open just enough to say this final prayer. I’ve tried to capture some of this in today’s poem.

Nunc Dimittis

After the silence, a cascade
of wonder, of sound, of light.

Before the darkness, a sight
of promise, of presence, of peace.

And in this aching and drooping of arms,
an answer, a dimming, an eternal day.

Now dismiss. I hold the day;
I hold the way that holds me into night.

Christmas 5: Heaven’s Eternal Christmas

Puer-natus-1553-lossius-melancthon-descantToday’s reading tells the story of Jesus being presented to Simeon, the faithful follower of God who had waited in expectation of the “consolation of Israel” for all of his life and could now be “dismissed in peace”.

In keeping with this theme of “consolation” – a favourite of mine at this blog! – today’s poem is a translation of an old hymn with an interesting history. Originally the Latin hymn “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”, it got a new life in the nineteenth century thanks to another favourite of mine, the mutton-chopped pastor and poet N.F.S. Grundtvig, who translated it to make the popular Danish Christmas song, “Et barn er født i Bethlehem” (“A baby is born in Bethlehem”). Today I’m adding another layer to that translation history, with my translation of the first six verses of Grundtvig’s hymn. You can also listen to a demo recording of the song set to my own tune – not an amazing recording, sorry, but it should give you an idea of how to sing it. I’ve also repeated the first verse at the end, this time in Danish, to show how the meter works in each language. May you rejoice in the consolation of not just Israel but all the world this Christmas.

A Baby’s Born in Bethlehem

A baby’s born in Bethlehem,
So rejoice, Jerusalem.
Alleluia, alleluia…

A lowly virgin, hidden, poor,
Delivers heaven’s Son, the Lord.
Alleluia, alleluia…

In a crib they laid him down,
The angels sang a joyful sound.
Alleluia, alleluia…

And from the east, wise men sacrificed
Gold, frankincense and myrrh refined.
Alleluia, alleluia…

And now are all our trials gone,
For on this day our saviour’s born.
Alleluia, alleluia…

So God’s people, now restored, can praise
In heaven’s eternal Christmas day.
Alleluia, alleluia…

Advent 2: Forgetting

I missed a day. Too busy with carols and attempts
to put my son to sleep, I slept
that second Advent Sabbath night
forgetting to rest, forgetting to write.

Rest slips past us now. Today I forgot also
to drink water, to eat. Now waiting
in queues I regret this forgetting.
The time we save now we pay later in kind;
rushing heart never won, only pounded.

What now? I sit thirsty, side-by-side in this waiting,
social security numbers like Augustus’s census,
no room anywhere. Wait,
weak heart, wait.