This First Sunday in Lent is the day the church reflects on the three Temptations of Christ in the Wilderness. These three Temptations, to material goods, to irresponsible power and to Spiritual pride are Universal and Christ faces them all for and with us, so that our disobedience can be redeemed and made perfect in his obedience. I will be reposting each of my sonnets on these three temptations on the coming days, but in this post I want to share with you an amazing Chamber Opera, based on those same three temptations which was written by Rhiannon Randle one of the music Students here at Cambridge, in my own college and performed, with a cast of brilliant young Cambridge musicians and singers, at the end of January. Rhiannon has, in my opinion, gone right to the heart of what I was trying to do in the sonnets and then re-worked and re-imagined it through the medium of her own art, with the result that when I saw the opera the whole thing became fresh, new, and challenging for me again. I hope it has the same effect on you. Below, with her permission I am posting a link to the complete libretto, a sound cloud link to a recording of the opera, and a youtube link to the St. John’s college performance, which was professionally filmed. Do enjoy it.
I resume the thread of Sounding the Seasons, the sonnet sequence I have been posting here, and which is also available as a book from Canterbury Press, with this sonnet for Ash Wednesday. As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. So some of those themes are visited in this sonnet. As we go through Lent I will post sonnets reflecting on each of the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness, as well as for Mothering Sunday and the Feast of the Annunciation which also falls in Lent. And this Lent I have two special additions. the first is a link to the new Snippet Book for Lent by Steve Bell, to which I have made some contributions. Check out his snippet series HERE, and the second is an amazing new Opera by Rhiannon Randle called Temptations, which is based on my sonnets on the Temptations of Christ in the wilderness and which I will post about, with full links to audio and video, later this week.
You can buy Sounding the Seasons in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon, and I am very happy to say that both book s are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE
As before I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the remarkable commentary on these poems which she is making through her photographs. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play Button
Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published posthumously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my most recent poetry book The Singing Bowl. The sequence is a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons.
You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon, and I am vey happy to say that both book s are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
Though the 12 days of Christmas ended at Twelth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’
It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.
“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to His temple.
He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”
Continuing with Sounding the Seasons, my sonnet-sequence journey through the Church year, we approach the 25th of January, the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great Apostle.
Today begins ‘The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’, though it’s not so much a week of prayer as a change of heart that we need. I remember once saying to my mother, when she upbraided me for one of my (many) habitual failings, ‘Mum I’m gong to turn over a new leaf’. and she replied, quick as a flash, and with Mother wit: ‘It’s not the leaves, it’s the roots that want turning!’
We won’t turn again and grow together if we don’t turn together to the true source from which both we and our Gospel come: the Love at the heart of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Here is a playful Villanelle I wrote for my friend Michael Ward, that’s a call for us all to look upstream and acknowledge our common source. You can hear it, as always by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. The poem was originally a response to a fine, punning villanelle of his, and you can find that original context here. It was published last year in my new book of poems The Singing Bowl
The set readings for this ‘second Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of ’the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly, this sign points to the gift of His very self, His own heart’s blood, given once for all on the cross and received by us in communion. I have tried to bring out a little of the richness and depth of this first ‘sign’ in the following sonnet. This and my other sonets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’
You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry book The Singing bowl are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title of the sonnet itself
Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.
Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’