Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 14

This is the proclamation [the king] issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

Jonah 3:7-9
It may be that -
after the hate and division
the sins of omission
the clickbait, the baiting -
at the end of our waiting

we find
that our foe
is kneeling beside us
and the walls once inside us
can crumble at Mercy's
soft subsonic shout

and Nineveh's ashes
Jerusalem's ashes
Washington's ashes
Australia's ashes

are as a fragrance poured forth
which I Am shall adore
and all of our knees
shall climb to the floor

and all shall be well
when Mercy beats hell
at the sound of ten thousand
knees hitting the ground.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 13

The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

Jonah 3:5-6

One thing that has stood out to me throughout this year is how little we as a society know how to have periods of collective lament. Much as we have often been united by shared grief, there has been little public expression of this: collective frustration, perhaps, but often not collective grief. Memes comparing 2020 to grotesque flavours of chips or combusting portaloos have been more common than lament. And while there’s value in this kind of shared gallows humour, it seems we might be the poorer for not sitting in shared lament.

In particular, we do not really know how to collectively repent. Often we turn instead to laying political blame or defending our treasured positions. We are unwilling to recognise where we as a society have to share the blame – not for the pandemic, but for the greed and selfishness that was often revealed when the pandemic came, or for the failure to love our neighbours as ourselves that lay at the heart of so many tragedies and conflicts in our year.

Here, in Jonah 3, we see all of Nineveh, “from the least to the greatest”, united in lament and repentance. When does that happen in our world today? We either unite in blaming our leaders or blaming someone else – another people group, another philosophy, another country, another creed. When do we sit together in sackcloth and say that we as a society have done wrong?

It won’t cure the virus. It won’t answer every grief or fix every wrong. But who knows what it might accomplish, if people from either side of the political spectrum, from different classes and post-codes could be united in recognising that our world is not as it should be and that we must share some of the blame?

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 12

John Martin, “Repentance of Nineveh”, c.1840

The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

Jonah 3:5

Advent may not seem to be a time for sackcloth. For those who know the church calendar, it might seem more logical to think about repentance in Lent. But historically Advent and Lent used to be much more like each other than they are now, and it makes some sense that they would be. One of the images most associated with Advent is John the Baptist in the wilderness calling people to “prepare the way of the Lord”, and for John this meant repentance. We might think something similar as we imagine ourselves preparing to meet the baby King: approaching with a sense of unworthiness and contrition.

After the year we have had, we mostly want to skip the sackcloth and get straight to the celebration. Unlike Nineveh, we know the end to the story: God shows mercy and forgives. Why then do we need to go through with the sackcloth? Why not just rejoice? The truth is that rejoicing without repentance is entitlement. We focus on what we “deserve”, as though the world – even God – “owes us”. Certainly there’s a place for recognising that we need rest and need celebration, and God in His goodness gives us both. But He doesn’t owe us. Thinking that misses the point. Christians shouldn’t be surprised by grief and suffering in the world; we should know to expect it. What should surprise us is grace – not as though we keep forgetting the end of the story, but because it never fails to startle us with just how extraordinary it is.

Unless we know what it is to sit in sackcloth over sin, I don’t think we’ll grasp just how astonishing it is for God to lift us out of our ashes and invite us to meet His baby Son.

Kyrie in the Desert

What have I done with the food you gave me?
The bread of life grows mould where I left it.
The leaven of self sickens and spoils.
Puffed up by bread alone, no Word, I am fat and famished.
In the desert of abundance,
Lord have mercy.

All the kingdoms of the world dangle before you.
Only a bend of the knee will give them to you.
I bend at the first offer of reprieve.
Forty days can only show my nest of callow vipers.
In the desert of my failing,
Christ have mercy.

You flap your dove’s wings above living water,
Yet I am bent on brackish wastelands.
I draw brine and bile from my spirit’s well.
I vent spleen upon your ever-flowing fountain.
At the oasis of contrition,
Lord have mercy.

From dust and ashes (After a poem by Nelly Sachs)

We travel through cosmic debris.
All the time a war wages – starshower missiles,
misguided asteroids.
The mayhem is our doing.
Harmony – meant to be sung –
ended with us.
Begin again with us.
From ashes we stand,
cupped hands opened to receive,
to re-enter Your orbit.

(Inspired by this translation of Nelly Sachs:

Lent: Enough 5

What warmth I hide in will soon grow cold.
All Peter’s false fires, Adam’s cloak of leaves,
will burn out, fade, and leave nakedness in ash.
Clothe me. My shame is always before me.
Nothing hides from Your sight
what should be white, yet’s stained like blood.
O God. I stand –
naked, dust.
You are enough. You are enough.

Lent: New Song 6

Newness declares itself in broken hearts:
old ruts are vast and carry dust
yet penitence cleans fathoms deep
     and always makes anew.

What yesterday made shame your song
today is fading into silence.
Listen: polyphonic hope arises,
      gentle, soft, yet sure.

The old has passed, yet still can yell;
The new has come, and comes each day.
In humble ways and hopeful praise,
sing to the Lord new songs.

Lent: New Song 3

Sing to the Lord a new song –
The old song is tired; it has no breath.
Love and faithfulness have kissed;
      sing their song and live.

Make way a path for righteousness –
a level path where knees won’t strain.
Sing body parts into new joy;
      watch new steps form for feet.

O search my heart. O listen, song –
the old is dead. The new must come.
Before your feet, set righteousness;
       let bodies learn His hymn.