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.
The virgin sat,
the angel's words
shimmering around the room.
She fancied now that Daniel
might have shared her trembling heart
when Gabriel had spoken truth which did not fully sooth.
The prophets spoke of shoots from stumps
and virgins bearing Israel's sign,
and yet she'd never heard her name
connected with such wondrous things,
too wonderful for her to bear
and truths too great for words.
She sat, a vessel soon to burst,
the weight of truth not settled yet,
the sword not yet descended.
As we begin the season of Advent, I thought it would be fitting to begin with some Advent-themed poems. The first is based on Luci Shaw’s “The Annunciatory Angel”, which itself is a response to Fra Angelico’s painting “The Annunciation”. Though inspired by Shaw’s poem, I have gone back to the original painting and written my own response to it. I hope that it can help you also to focus on the amazing Christmas story this Advent.
Uncertainty (After “The Annunciatory Angel”)
Bent forwards, finger to lips as though
A secret is about to be told,
Crested with gold, saurian wings, more
Bone-like than feathered, halo at the side,
Cone-of-silence-like, to keep the secret:
The angel whispers,
And Mary waits, Medieval fringe her veil,
Hands clasped to chest – does she cradle herself
Or cover her breasts? Blue modesty drapes itself
Around her waist. Wooden floorboards must feel
The shake, the suppressed tremble
As the Angel’s pursed lips disclose a truth
Shocking to the ears, to the senses, to logic,
Then as much as now.
And, wandering beneath the stars,
At stage right, three figures, one haloed, the others not,
Descending a hill towards – something? Towards what?
Fra Angelico does not show,
The only light a glow about
The Angel’s feet and face, and Mary,
Glowing in uncertainty, the prospect
Of scared obedience.