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.

Broken Epiphanies

Save me, O God: for the waters are entered even to my soul.
I stick fast in the deep mire, where no stay is: I am come into deep waters, and the streams run over me.
(Psalm 69:1-2, 1599 Geneva Bible)

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Hieronymus Bosch, “Adoration of the Magi”, c.1480-1500 View larger image https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Bosch,_Madrid)#/media/File:Hieronymus_Bosch_-_Triptych_of_the_Adoration_of_the_Magi_-_WGA2606.jpg

Is it, as Bosch would have it, a sinking scene,
hut scarcely erect, while in the background
knights and crusaders fight, and crazed faces peek
through cracks in the broken structure?
If so, my crazed face peeks.
Show me the truth through the falling thatch.
Let me climb to the roof to see
the light greater than the dark in me.

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Albrecht Dürer, “Adoration of the Magi”, c.1504

Or, as for Dürer, does the Light lie in castle ruins?
Do relic-arches arc around the one who put
the promise-bow into the arching sky?
Do dark clouds gather on the edges? If so,
those clouds are me. O light eternal,
lighten the load the makes me droop and bristle.
I drown in the dry of my day.
Unwise, I come. Do not send my tattered folly away.

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.

Christmas 9: Join the dancing

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Fra Angelico, “Dance of the Blessed”

On the ninth day of Christmas, apparently, someone’s true love once gave them nine ladies dancing. Impractical though this is as a Christmas present (not to mention hard to wrap), it suits today’s carol well: the majestic “In dulci jubilo”, set by the seventeenth-century German Lutheran composer Michael Praetorius. The story of the text, originally written by 13th-century German mystic Heinrich Suso, is a story of dancing being brought into the midst of grief. According to the (auto?)biography of Suso, The Life of the Servant, Suso was told by an angel to stop the intense mortifications that he was practising and instead to join the angels in their dance: “Now this same angel came up to the Servant [Suso] brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth [angel] began a joyous song about the infant Jesus, which runs thus: ‘In dulci jubilo’, etc.” It may or may not be a true story (more about the fascinating life of Suso can be read here), but the f
act remains that a man known for his austere ascetic practices also gave the medieval church one of its most joyful hymns. Today’s poem is inspired by Suso and the angel’s words.

Join the dancing

Angels dance around the stall.
Sing! Sing! One and all.

Come to earth, enthroned in hay,
sleeps the shining, living Day.

Leave your grieving songs, your weeping.
Dance, dance, with angels leaping.

Though the darkness now may linger,
Heaven dwells within a manger.

Cast off your ashes and your sackcloth.
The king is resting in a food trough.

Nothing now can snuff his light.
Sing, dance, with all your might.

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 4: Correction

So now: as we wait in rapt expectancy,
will we unwrap our dreams? Our loves?
Or unravel with the pressure,
the hallowed table proving to be full of holes.

When the day and its gestures disappoint,
what will tell us, You matter?
Frantic to complete the list,
we quickly pass the simple scene:
a teenage mother tending her child,
tired from the journey to the in-laws’ town.

Too pressed for time with time-pressing matters,
we miss the divine entrance into our smelly matter.
Our lunchtime squabbles and fights over gifts
are themselves the stage He chose to walk.
The chance to be changed lies within rudest details:
a makeshift crib; soil and straw;
an angry heart with limited room.

Damascus Road Prayers: Advent 4

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…without the First-born no-one is able
to approach Being, for he alone is capable of it.
(Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns of the Nativity)

Do we forget who we are?
Clamouring for prizes, for profit, for land,
The spaces we contest constrain us.
Who was Herod when he feared a baby?
Who was the baby when he taught Herod truth?
Let us bring right gifts to the right honoured guest;
Let life know itself in the truest Light.
Vaster than under heavens, grander than all ego,
True being lies helpless among cattle.