On this night in Shakespeare’s day, there would have been wild revelry to celebrate the twelfth night of Christmas. He even named one of his plays this, a sign perhaps that it was to be performed on the twelfth night, but also a possible nod to the ways that Christmas switches around our ideas of wisdom and foolishness, poverty and wealth. This same inversion is captured for me in the wondrously celebratory first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, a piece which surprises listeners by placing the recorder, not usually a solo instrument, alongside the violin. It isn’t a Christmas carol in any sense, but I think it’s still a fitting conclusion to our early music Christmas season. It also works well as a soundtrack to one of our texts for today, Proverbs 22:2, which says, “The rich and poor meet together: the LORD is the maker of them.”
“The rich and poor meet together”
Hear this: it’s singing,
Nothing is as you have thought it to be.
Listen: the king is
enthroned, he is ruling.
Yet see how he rules, how he lays down his crown.
Watch this: the minstrels
sit at the king’s table.
See how the courtiers have no place to lounge.
are trilling in triumph.
Come to the feast! (Leave your privilege behind.)
…the dread of something after death –
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns – puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of…
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
What dreams may come when we set out for stars?
What will we find when, solar systems pierced,
We gaze beyond the reach of looking-glass?
That our Sun has a cousin much more fierce?
That Pluto’s a planet after all? That we
Are not alone? That man’s an errant knave?
That, mirrored in Kepler 452b,
We see our fate: as rock without any wave?
Still, wave; don’t drown. Light millennia stand
Between us and our twin; no cheap flights
To suss out greener grasses. Best-laid plans
Must prove themselves or else be caught in light.
Hope makes a fool of missions to other spheres,
Always ready when true land appears.
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
To the untrained eye, nothing has changed:
smoke still billows from chimneys;
mornings are dark; alarms wake too early;
the mad prince still fools the diplomat with his madness,
the sane with his sanity.
To the untrained eye, all these clouds look the same
and cannot be seen for the smog.
Brakes still wail; billboards roar;
by afternoon, relax your tie –
yet it is not like it was before.
This flesh-and-blood normality
denies this Nonetheless which sits
beside us and inside and knocks
us sideways with its shock of grace.
Everything is rent in two;
these clouds are never still, and all
these forms we fill will not contain
what lies before our way.
For every indifferent sigh, repent;
as the lie falls away,
falls the Day.
He remembered us in our low estate His love endures forever.
The esteem of love which esteems greatly,
sacrifices all for the receipt of nothing,
and gives self when Self is not
found within oneself;
the worth of love which bestows worth,
values highly what is lowly valued,
remembers what is passing, faint
and lost in low estate:
sing, celebrate, imitate this love,
which loves where love is not,
which lifts what sinks in swamp and mire;
and loves what it transforms.
Yet love which loves with double-tongue
and loves that it may be esteemed,
esteeming only when it’s loved
and gives to be returned,
which values what gives value back
remembers only what clings to the mind,
which sinks unless by others raised,
and affirms the fishing soul:
love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, nor is
it love when with a hidden hand
it clutches and gives up.
Indebted to eternity, already aeons lost in space,
beholden to a love too vast
for any mind or hand to grasp,
love as you have been loved.
The law fulfilled, the highest good
held out to you upon a tree,
seek first the kingdom and receive
a love which gives as love.