Tag Archives: christianity

A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

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.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“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…”

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 viaAmazon, 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 poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem


Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

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.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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Apostle! -a sonnet for St. Paul

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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.

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 viaAmazon, 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 poem by clicking n the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title of the poem.



Apostle

An enemy whom God has made a friend,

A righteous man discounting righteousness,

Last to believe and first for God to send,

He found the fountain in the wilderness.

Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,

A prisoner who set his captors free,

A naked man with love his only garment,

A blinded man who helped the world to see,

A Jew who had been perfect in the law,

Blesses the flesh of every other race

And helps them see what the apostles saw;

The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,

And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul

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The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: back to the source!

Sixth century mosaic at Tabgha

Sixth century mosaic at Tabgha

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



Which comes first, the fish or the river?

Since every gift comes down from the All-Giver,
How can I choose between the Giver’s gifts
Or say which should come first, the fish or river?

He scatters first, and then calls us to gather,
To lavish on his work our smaller crafts
And sail our praise upstream, back to the Giver.

He gives His gifts when we are met together,
Not in our splits, our schisms, and our rifts:
We cannot prize the Fish and not the River,

Divide the two and say ‘which would you rather?’
We float through time on fragile little rafts,
But time and life alike flow from the Giver.

Away upstream, it all flows from the Father:
The stream is His own Spirit, giving gifts;
His Son, our brother, joins us in the River.

He is our ‘both-and’ God, not ‘or’, or ‘either’;
He gives full measure: steady, heady draughts!
The Giver must come first, always the Giver,
We prize alike His gifts: both Fish and River.

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Second Sunday of Epiphany; the miracle at Cana

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

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



Epiphany at Cana

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.’

It cost our Saviour everything he has

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The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. The first Sunday of Epiphany is a time to reflect on the moment when ‘the heavens opened’ at Jesus’ Baptism and we were given a glimpse of Father Son and Holy Spirit at the heart of all things. This sonnet is a reflection on that mystery. As always you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ sign or on the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful photograph, taken at the river Jordan which says as much as, if not more than the poem. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop.  After the text of the poem I have included links to the wonderful song Steve Bell wrote from it. He has written a fascinating blog post about writing that song here: Steve Bell on his song.



Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.

Also check out Steve Bell’s amazing album Keening for the Dawn in which he reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song
Keening for the Dawn
You can hear the song itself on sound loud here:

Epiphany on the Jordansteve-album

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A Sonnet for Epiphany

these three arrive and bring us with them

The Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the three wise men at the manger in Bethlehem has a special mystery and joy to it. Until now the story of the coming Messiah has been confined to Israel, the covenant people, but here suddenly, mysteriously, are three Gentiles who have intuited that his birth is good new for them too. Here is an Epiphany, a revelation, that the birth of Christ is not  one small step for a local religion but a great leap  for all mankind. I love the way that traditionally the three wise men (or kings) are shown as representing the different races and cultures and languages of the world. I love the combination in their character of diligence and joy. They ‘seek diligently’, but they ‘rejoice with exceeding great joy’! I love the way they loved and followed a star, but didn’t stop at the star, but rather let the star lead them to something beyond itself. Surely that is a pattern for all wise contemplation of nature whether in art or science.

One can return constantly to the mystery of the Epiphany and always find more but here is a little sonnet which particularly focuses on the way their arrival on the scene suddenly includes us as Gentiles into what has been, up to this point an exclusively Jewish story. The last line of this poem is a little nod in the direction of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title of the poem which will take you to the audioboo page.



Epiphany

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A  pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

Postscript:

Now the Feast of the Epiphany is both the end of Christmas and the beginning of the Church’s Epiphany Season which she keeps until the Feast of the Presentation (or Candlemas), on February 2nd. On the Sundays of this Epiphany season it is traditional to move from the this first great ‘epiphany’ or manifestation of glory to the Gentiles, to contemplate the other ‘epiphanies’ that mark the beginning of Christ’s Ministry; the Heaven’s opening at his baptism, the Calling of his disciples, especially the ‘epiphany moment’ granted to Nathanael, and promised to all of us, and then finally the first of his miracles, his ‘signs whereby he manifested his glory’; the Miracle at Cana in Galilee.

So the Sonnet I have given above is the first in a sequence of  Epiphany Sonnets, drawn from my book Sounding the Seasons, which is available from Amazon etc or by order from your local bookshop, should you be lucky enough to have one.  I shall post the others in time for the various Sundays of Epiphany. The image below is courtesy of Margot Krebs Neal

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Ringing in The New Year

bellsOn New Years Eve a group of us will gather in the mediaeval Bell Tower of St. Edward’s church in Cambridge to pray, and reflect, and to ring in the new year. We will be participating in a long tradition. George Herbert imagined Prayer itself as ‘Church Bells beyond the stars heard’ and the great turning point in In Memoriam, Tennyson’s great exploration of time and eternity, mortality and resurrection, doubt and faith, comes with the ringing of bells for the new year and his famous and beautiful lines beginning ‘Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,’ and concluding:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be. (For more of this passage and my talks on Tennyson click Here)

I love to hear our bells, the oldest of which has chimed in our tower since the fifteenth century, and so I have made my own small contribution to the poetry and meaning of bell ringing in the following sonnet, which is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’

Sounding the Seasons and my new book The singing bowl are both available from Amazon or on order from your local bookstore

As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.



New Year’s Day: Church Bells

 Not the bleak speak of mobile messages,

The soft chime of synthesised reminders,

Not texts, not pagers, data packages,

Not satnav or locators ever find us

As surely, soundly, deeply as these bells

That sound and find and call us all at once

‘Ears of my ears’ can hear, my body feels

This call to prayer that is itself a dance.

So ring  them out in joy and jubilation,

Sound them in sorrow tolling for the lost,

O let them wake the church and rouse the nation,.

A sleeping lion stirred to life at last

Begin again they sing, again begin,

A ring and rhythm answered from within.

The Bell Tower at St. Edward King and Martyr Cambridge

The Bell Tower at St. Edward King and Martyr Cambridge

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On the Feast of Stephen

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood

There is something telling about the fact that the very day after Christmas the Church celebrates the Feast of Stephen, the first Martyr. Martyr means witness, and Stephen witnessed that the Babe born at Bethlehem was worth dying for, and more: he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and in that resurrection the promise of resurrection to humanity, for whom Christ died. The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church, and the seed Stephen sowed bore almost immediate fruit.  I believe it was the witness of Stephen’s martyrdom that opened the way for Christ into the life of St. Paul. Even as he held the coats and was consenting unto Stephen’s death he was witnessing in Stephen’s face the risen life and love of Christ, and Paul’s road to Damascus led past the very place where Stephen died.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. This poem is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons; Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year’ published by Canterbury Press and also available from Amazon UK, US, and Canada



St. Stephen

 

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood,

Your martyrdom begins and stands for all.

They saw the stones, you saw the face of God,

And sowed a seed that blossomed in St. Paul.

When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter

He had to pass through that Damascus gate

Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter

As Christ, alive in you, forgave his hate,

And showed him the same light you saw from heaven

And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;

Christ did not ask ‘Why were you stoning Stephen?’

But ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’

Each martyr after you adds to his story,

As clouds of witness shine through clouds of glory.

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Descent; A Christmas Poem

mangerHappy Christmas!

Milton wrote an Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, which no one can hope to emulate, but in this poem I have followed his lead in drawing a contrast between the various gods of the Classical world and the full and astonishing revelation of God’s love in the manger at Bethlehem. This was originally a short three verse poem, but at the behest of Steve Bell I have re-written it so that it is now also a song, with a tune of his composing on his award-winning Album Keening for the Dawn. I have written about our collaboration here.  I have also recorded  a reading of this poem which you can hear by clicking on the ‘play’ button below or the title



Descent

They sought to soar into the skies

Those classic gods of high renown

For lofty pride aspires to rise

But you came down.

 

You dropped down from the mountains sheer

Forsook the eagle for the dove

The other Gods demanded fear

But you gave love

 

 

 

Where chiselled marble seemed to freeze

Their abstract and perfected form

Compassion brought you to your knees

Your blood was warm

 

They called for blood in sacrifice

Their victims on an altar bled

When no one else could pay the price

You died instead

 

 

They towered above our mortal plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and pain,

But you were born.

 

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all ‘astride the grave’

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

And strong to save.

 

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On Christmas Eve; A Sonnet for Mary

The Theotokos of vladimirChristmas Eve seems a good time to remember the one who bore our saviour for us, who was full of grace.

Mary has been given many titles down the ages and some Christians have disagreed with one another bitterly about her. But equally, in every age and every church she has been, for many Christians, a sign of hope and an inspiration. In a strange way, which I will write about in another post, she was a sign of hope to me even before I was a Christian, and it was something numinous and beautiful in the paintings and poetry she has inspired that helped lead me to her Son.

Her earliest ‘title’, agreed throughout the church in the first centuries of our faith, before the divisions of East and West, Catholic and Protestant, was Theotokos, which means God-Bearer. she is the prime God-Bearer, bearing for us in time the One who was begotten in eternity, and every Christian after her seeks to become in some small way a God-bearer, one whose ‘yes’ to God means that Christ is made alive and fruitful in the world through our flesh and our daily lives, is  born and given to another.

So here is my sonnet for her. I have taken a small liberty with one of Dante’s finest lines, when through the eyes of St. Bernard, he gives us a glimpse of her in heaven.

This poem is included in my new book Sounding the Seasons; Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Published by Canterbury Press and now also available in the USA and Canada via Westminster John Knox Press

As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears, or clicking on the title.


Theotokos

You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.

Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,

Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,

Call me again, for I am lost, and  wild

Waves suround me now. On this dark sea

Shine as a star and call me to the shore.

Open the door that all my sins would close

And hold me in your garden. Let me share

The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.

Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery

And bring me to the One you bore for me.

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