History has few exemplars to be proud of.
The Greeks did well with Priam, at least,
willing to face “iron-hearted,
man-slaying Achilles” for the sake of a son.
My own culture’s replete with absent men,
“bronze Anzacs” taught from birth not to cry.
The Biblical witness, too, leaves something to be desired:
most too busy with wives in multiples to see
sons ganging up on sons, hurling into ditches,
covering many-coloured garments with blood.
Some simply could not hear, over
the chewing of fruit, the sound of the older
saying to the younger brother, “Come for a walk.”
One king learnt too late that all
the years at war, or watching rooftop baths,
did not teach a son to trust or respect his old man.
Only this cry rings out as a lesson: “Absalom,
my son, my son! Would that it were me instead of you.
Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom, my son!”
Perhaps the polygamists, war-mongers and liars
have this to teach us: the insufficiency of one
man of dust to be the all, the end, of the home.
In his frailty and deceit he clears the way
for another tale, another sight:
the wealthy man embracing pig-stained rags,
the fattened calf killed,
the Father’s arms stretched.
This witness alone can teach the twisted tongue
the meaning of our faintly-voiced, “Father.”
One of the more curious lost phenomena of Christmas was the late Medieval custom of appointing a so-called “Lord of Misrule” (or, as called in Scotland, the “Abbot of Unreason”). This involved either a peasant or an unimportant figure in the church being appointed to oversee the Christmas revelries. A related or parallel custom involved appointing a “boy bishop”, a child who would be bishop for the duration of the Christmas season. The “misrule” over which the Lord of Misrule ruled was sufficiently baudy that the Protestant Tudor rulers, as part of their cleaning up of the English church, saw fit to abolish the custom (although the Catholic Tudor, Mary I, saw fit to reinstate it). Yet there’s an unexpected biblical truth contained in the custom: that human rule is turned upside down by the coming of a baby king into the world who, though born a peasant, was God Himself.
As we approach Epiphany (this Saturday), the daily readings remind us of the ways that the wisdom of the world is different to the wisdom of God (expressed by the wise men finding the heavenly king not with Herod but in peasant Bethlehem). Today’s poem takes as its inspiration the rollicking Medieval song, “Lux Hodie, Orientus Partibus”, a joyful song about a powerful donkey carrying a king. It’s in these kinds of moments that I think the Medieval church remembered something about the truth of Christmas that we would do well to remember today.
You who would be wise, take heed:
the king lies in a peasant’s bed.
You who would be great, take heed:
He takes a donkey as His steed.
You who would follow Him, take heed:
His throne’s a cross, a cursed tree.
You who would find life, take heed:
true life must die first, as a seed.
You who would be wise, take heed:
most blessed is this bruised reed.
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.
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.
This is what must first be given to the painting, a harmonious warmth, an abyss into which the eye sinks, a voiceless germination…
How often is he shown with those horns of light,
as though his head were itself full
of the brightest luminescence and
two cracks, two holes
had formed inside his skull to let
escape all that light, kept
invisibly, impossibly, inside.
Yet for Rembrandt see
how darkness grabs the eye much more
than all the plainness of that face,
how even those two tablets seem
as black as all the dark to which
we’re told that he drew near, while all
of Israel stood just far enough
away to not be safe.
And when El Greco takes
the striking forms of Sinai as
his text, the darkness is
in every shadow-line beneath
the redness of the clouds, around
those rocky pillars, rising from
the chalky, sketchy ground.
Not darkness, but light, shone forth
from those two tablets when
the light-horned Moses brought them down.
Yet light like that we must squint to see.
When fear declares that only man
is safe, that we can’t bear to hear
the voice that struck the tablets’ side:
O let us step, like Moses, to
that darkness without human horns
where only in that absence
of human sight can all Your light
be ever fully seen.
The text is darker in this weather,
more emphatic, as though
while he wrote,
outside prison walls Saint Paul
saw the fall
of some Ephesian rain-drops and thought:
If my plea should fall on hard soil…
Did he see the runaway slave
in the wet, uncertain,
his master’s door, with letter
on solid Colossian stones, and fear
a silent and stony reply?
Raindrops soften soil. Outside is damp,
garden drenched. Too much heart
is a flood
when heart hears abject pleading.
today with softening truth, and yet
for all my rain I still am clay.