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.

20 Contemplations #11: Communion

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Anselm Kiefer, "Herzeleider"

…Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
(Luke 2:19)

I hold You; I bore You. Yet You cannot
be held by me. The story told from first
honours me but exalts You more: a dot
at the start, impossibly small, yet burst-
ing with life. How could this all be? I did
not make it so. I held You, I hold You,
yet Glory made You. I grew You inside,
yet You grew me. Your breath shows it is true:
so dependent, so in need of me.
Can I hold my saviour so? Can I birth
the world’s one hope, like fruit from ungrown tree?
Can my maker grow from this virgin earth?
All things out of nothing He grows, and so
my nothing He has given mother-glow.

20 Contemplations #7: Crux

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Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion"

…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:8)

Did He view the Cross from birth? Did crossbeams
In the stable tell Him where He’d go?
Did He see the Cross in treetops’ glow
As He flew to earth from Heaven’s beams?
Perhaps as Joseph carved at night, His dreams
Spoke to Him of timber, nails, a show
Of Roman triumph in their streets. He’d know
From birth, for He knows all. Yet did it seem
As though His life was bent to Cross? A sword
Would pierce His mother’s soul, so she was told
By Simeon, who declared that some would fall;
And as He learned to walk, to talk, to be
As humans are on earth, He knew from old
That cursed would be the man hung on a tree.

20 Contemplations #4: Magnify

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation)

But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
(Luke 1:29)

Magnify, soul. Let mind expand; let heart
Take in what cannot be contained. Discern,
Yet know the limits of your thoughts. Return
Again, again, to faith. Take humble part
In grandest story. This is just the start
Of nations in upheaval; kingdoms burn
Beneath this unexpected cosmic turn.
Take heart. Take faith, though angels will depart.

What will this mean when Joseph hears the news?
Or when the labour pains make all this seem
Confused, a blur, too far-fetched for a dream?
Remember Sarah, Hannah. Look back on
The stories of this mystery-grace, beacons
Of the secret glory now contained in you.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

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Xavier Romero Frias, Wikimedia Commons

For most people, Christmas is now over. The supermarkets are already stocking hot cross buns. But in the traditional church calendar, today is the last day of the season of Christmas – a season lasting twelve days, as we remember in the old song. Why remember Christmas for twelve days instead of one? If nothing else, it gives us a chance to think about what it really means, once the distractions have died down, and to look more closely at what comes next in the story.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

Tradition says to put away the tree,
Though yours perhaps has already come down,
The children sullen, home a new-year frown,
And resolutions stowed in the pantry.

“Back to work,” you say. And in the streets
The same straight-fixéd gazes all around,
Ear-buds containing every inward sound.
My-true-love-sent-to-me, pit-pat your feet.

Perhaps you’ve still some toys to play with, or
There’s thank-you letters now for kids to start.
Yet on the twelfth day, Jesus still grew strong
And Mary treasured all things in her heart;
And stars still blazed for those who journeyed on,
Not numbed like us who know the yearly score.

Luke 1: Zechariah and Mary

Portrait de Zacharie et d'Elisabeth - James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait de Zacharie et d’Elisabeth – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons)
No surprise, perhaps,
    that the impossible’s not
a boundary    for the one who lit stars
and sculpted the mountains,           watered –
drew water from –    our rock.

Yet unexpected now, this figure
in temple,       in dreams,
beholding and saying
what’s seldom been said, more seldom believed:

The barren with child?
     A new way prepared?
        The virgin a mother?
           The hearts of the parents
                turned to their children,
        and souls taught to thirst after justice?

Behold –
these microscopic miracles of everyday grace:
Life folded in             zygotic life,
            faith found in anguish,
the courage of obedience,
speechlessness turned
to vocal trust,

     all caught up in
the moment of saying,
       “I am His servant.
    Let it be so with me.”

Esurientes implevit bonis (After J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in E-flat)

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Two women who knew the truth of a God who exalts the humble were Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Both were unlikely mothers, one a virgin, the other barren and ridiculed by her husband’s other wife, Penninah. When Mary heard the news that she was bearing the saviour of the world in her womb, she looked to the song sung by Hannah, the barren mother, a thousand years earlier, to express the topsy-turviness of God’s act of grace expressed in Jesus.

This poem is inspired by Bach’s setting of Mary’s prayer, a beautiful piece which my fiancée (also called Hannah) performed tonight at St Paul’s Cathedral. The movement that inspired it is the setting of these words: “He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.” In his setting, Bach uses two recorders, an instrument used also in his Brandenburg Concerto No.4 to express the lifting up of the humble. I hope my simple words tonight can express something of this exalting grace.

Watch a performance of Bach’s piece

Esurientes implevit bonis

Look: humble Hannah is full;
Penninah goes away hungry.
Grace interweaves a broken fabric;
stillness sings with gentle voice
and fills the earth with noise.

O magnify: the humbled proud
listen as the faintest voice
is heard most resonant, the seed
most small at first soon yields a field
of plenty in this day.