Epiphany: Unexpected Myrrh

all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.
(Isaiah 60:6b)

The promise shines bright,
but not all have eyes to see.
Many search elsewhere, dismissive of their quest
for nothing great comes from Palestine.
Preferring the grandeur of temple and palace courts,
they snub noses at a people on their knees
and follow other stars for other fates.

Yet to those who’ve been waiting,
those willing to hoist saddle and trudge desert sands,
the movement of stars matches movements in hearts
and the star points to what they are seeking.
Only this is unexpected: not only
do they bring the ointment of kings
and the gold that’s surely fit for him
but a resin that embalms when bodies expire,
a sign that the child-king lives here to die.
Knees bow before this acceptance of fate
while proud knees are buckled at the truth.
Only when it humbles will it save.

Christmas 11: Upsidedown

Rembrandt, “The Flight into Egypt: a night piece”, from a print made by Henri Louis Basan, c. 1810

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.

20 Contemplations #18: Anointing

Albrecht Dürer, “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem”

In your majesty ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness…
God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
(Psalm 45:4a, 7b)

Do not be deceived. He comes in meekness
now to expose the proud. He sleeps among
the donkeys and cattle now; soon the throng
of pilgrims will see Him ride, not in weakness,
but in true majesty. Do you seek this
or to be told that you are never wrong?
He will ride again; it will not be long,
and you will not dismiss His forgiveness.
Who you reject tonight will call to account
when He rides in all the glory of day.
His light beckons us in the eastern sky,
yet many despise its slow, meek way.
Look to the wise. Bow before the child;
there is room for your mess and your doubt.

Childhood (After Peter Steele’s “Star Man”)

For those who follow the church calendar, we are now in the season of Epiphany, the brief time between Christmas and Lent. Peter Steele’s cycle of poems “Rounding a Year”, deals nicely with this season, especially the strange in-between period where Jesus has been born but is not yet approaching the Cross. I’ve used today’s poem, a response to part of Steele’s work, to reflect on this stage of Jesus’ life.

Childhood (After "Star Man")

Strange as it must have been to grow as a child
   in the world which was his child, he grew,
we're told, and "became strong", "filled with wisdom":
   street-wise, perhaps, the way a kid has to be,
with all of these Romans around, yet wise also
   about the lines and shades of truth,
the textures of the soul, the contours of the earth,
   wise to know a true word when spoken,
being himself the Word. The Magi knew
   true wisdom when they saw it, but Herod
      would stumble on wisdom like a rock.
Yes, his father taught him which nail to use,
   how to use this chisel to shape this space,
how to manipulate the sternness of stone -
   yet those lessons were scarcely needed,
symbols, perhaps, of how low he had come,
   that he should take advice from a man
whom he himself had formed and shaped like clay.
   If he grew in wisdom and knowledge, perhaps
it was more like a waking than a learning - that
   moment of remembrance after a dream,
      the knowing assertion of light into a tomb.

Star Man - Peter Steele

What did they tell him about the early days?
   The infants taken out, the scramble
across a border, another sojourn in Egypt,
   the being strangers in a strange land,
anxiety as something gnawed like bread -
   was that the story? And what became
of all the star-talk they'd heard from camel drivers
  and their curious masters, who fished in bags
for the dulled flaming of gold, for smoky gum,
  for myrrh to mask mortality, while
     the child dozed as he needed?

Grown, a day's work done, the tools consigned
  to peace and shavings, he'd stroll and gaze
at the many nail-heads fixing a darkened fabric,
  the well-made world above him. And knew
as little as that vast array of siblings,
  hacks and drudges, who comb us all
towards coherence. Thumbs in his belt, he watched,
  but not to see the spill of fires
from whose old dust we're beckoned out to be,
  much less to think, as some would say,
     that in him all was made.

(From Peter Steele, The Gossip and the Wine, 2010, John Leonard Press)

All the wisdom of Babylon

“The thing that the king asks is difficult, and 
no one can show it to the king except the gods, 
whose dwelling is not with flesh.”

They can only rearrange, those magi
whose god is their own minds. Taking what is
known already, they squint first through this eye
then that. Ask for wisdom, they will reply
as the king’s itching ear longs to hear. Ask
for revelation and they will sigh:
“What the king requires is too hard a task!”
Wisdom which struts its stuff in the street and basks
in its own sun-tanned glory has nothing
to say but theories about childhood, masks
for its own blankness. True wisdom comes right
when we’ve least reason to trust human sight.

Joy in the Planting

“What profit,” I asked, “does there lie in this soil?
My labour will bear its fruit on a day
Far off in the future, when I’m gone away
And a stranger will reap from my toil.”

“What gain,” I then asked, “in this mortal coil,
This limitless cycle of birth and decay,
This nothing-new-under-the-sun, and the way
That the wise man must die like fool?”

“Much profit,” the voice from the water’s edge said,
Where the bread of our labours lay waiting,
And Adam, the gardener, speaking though dead,
Looking on as we strove, our strength fainting,
Pointed to where the earth bore daily bread,
And we looked, and saw joy in the planting.