Monthly Archives: January 2012

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…”

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.

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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Epiphany at Cana

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The last of my Epiphany sonnets is a reflection on ‘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.

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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Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the Nw Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ But Phillip gives the best possible reply that anyone sharing the mystery of their faith can give; ‘Come and see’. and that ‘come and see’ sets a theme of ‘seeing’ and vision which culminates in the amazing exchange between Nathanael and Jesus that follows.

Before Nathanael has uttered a word Jesus says ‘Behold an Israelite indeed’ and turns the tables of ‘vision’ onto Nathanael himself, and in that moment Nathanael suddenly knows that he is ompletely known by this man he has never met. ‘Whence knowest thou me?’ he asks, and Jesus’ reply is again about vision and seeing: ‘Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.’  Something amazing happens here, Nathan, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an undertanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares ‘Rabbi thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel!’

An Epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance, to see and be seen is enough! This is an example in the Gospel of a sudden ‘awakening’, a direct pointing to reality, which some people think is only associated with Buddhism, but here it is. And then Jesus, alluding subtly to Nathanael’s mention of Israel, promises that this is just the beginning of a greater epiphany. Nathanael is ‘an Israelite indeed’ and Jesus points to the key epiphany in the life of Israel, when he was still called Jacob, the epiphany in which he saw the ladder connecting heaven and earth:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’

Here is one of those thrilling moments when a mysterious image from the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New! The ladder was a prophetic image given in a dream to Jacob of what is to come, now it has come true! I am the ladder, Jesus is saying, the true connection, the true gate of Heaven. And in this intimate exchange Nathanael has seen with his waking eyes what his ancestor had seen only veiled in dream and symbol!

I have tried to embody something of these reflections in the following sonnet. I am grateful again for Margot Kreb’s Neale’s beautiful photograph, itself a comentary on this same mystery. As always you can hear this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Nathanael’s Epiphany

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

And here also is a link to the podcast of a sermon inspired by this story and concluding with this poem:

Jacob, Nathanael and You

An extraordinary Sculpture of Jacob's Dream at Abilene Christian University, Texas.

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Epiphany on the Jordan

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 s 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 read the poem and preached on the Mystery at St. Edwards this Sunday and if you would like to listen to the poem and sermon together there is a link to the podcast after 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.

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.

Epiphany poem and sermon

Beginning here we glimpse the three in one

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Refugee

Epiphany is over, the kings have set off home another way. But their arrival has triggered an appalling chain of events. Herod, then as now, thinks nothing of killing the innocent for political ends. The Christ-child is a refugee in the world he came to save. But God, who gives Himself for us all also calls us all to give an account to Him of how we have lived and loved in that world.

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

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

giotto-di-bondone-the-flight-into-egypt

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A first 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 and I shall post the others in time for the various Sundays of Epiphany. However before we consider these further mysteries of the Epiphany, we have also to contemplate the flight to Egypt, and of how Christ began his life on earth as a child refugee, and that will be the subject of my next sonnet.

The image below is courtesy of Margot Krebs Neal

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