So keep his fires burning through the night Beacons and gateways for the child of light.
We pause for a moment in our poetic journey through the psalms, to mark an important moment in our other journey through the sacred seasons of the year. For now we have come to midsummer and the traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!
The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.
I have written two sonnets, one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.
I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.
Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon UK and USA It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
As usual you can hear the poems by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.
If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!
Returning for a moment to my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year, here is one for Trinity Sunday which I am posting a couple of days early, in case people would like to make use of it on Sunday.
By coming to us as the Son, revealing to us the Father, and sending to us the Spirit, Jesus revealed the deepest mystery; that God is not distant and alone, but is three in one, a communion of love who comes to make His home with us.
The Rublev Icon, above, shows the Three in One inviting us to share in that communion. If, as I believe, we are made in the image of God, as beings in communion with one another in the name of that Holy and Undivided Trnity whose being is communion, then we will find reflections and traces of the Trinitarian mystery in all our loving and making.
As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem.
Readers who are interested in my use of the word ‘coinherent’ will find out more by watching the video of my talk about the British theologian Charles Williams, a friend and fellow inkling of CS Lewis which can be found here.
This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA . It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great..
A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green
Here, once more is my sonnet for Pentecost.
Drawn from ‘Sounding the Seasons’, my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year, this is a sonnet reflecting on and celebrating the themes and readings of Pentecost. Throughout the cycle, and more widely, I have been reflecting on the traditional ‘four elements’ of earth, air, water and fire. I have been considering how each of them expresses and embodies different aspects of the Gospel and of God’s goodness, as though the four elements were, in their own way, another four evangelists. In that context I was very struck by the way Scripture expresses the presence of the Holy Spirit through the three most dynamic of the four elements, the air, ( a mighty rushing wind, but also the breath of the spirit) water, (the waters of baptism, the river of life, the fountain springing up to eternal life promised by Jesus) and of course fire, the tongues of flame at Pentecost. Three out of four ain’t bad, but I was wondering, where is the fourth? Where is earth? And then I realised that we ourselves are earth, the ‘Adam’ made of the red clay, and we become living beings, fully alive, when the Holy Spirit, clothed in the three other elements comes upon us and becomes a part of who we are. So something of that reflection is embodied in the sonnet.
As usual you can hear me reading the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem itself. Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image which follows the poem.
Sounding the Seasons, is published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA . It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great..
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings Today the hidden fountain flows and plays Today the church draws breath at last and sings As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise. This is the feast of fire,air, and water Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth. The earth herself awakens to her maker And is translated out of death to birth. The right words come today in their right order And every word spells freedom and release Today the gospel crosses every border All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother tongue is Love in every nation.
If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish.
And here, an a little bonus is the outline of a Pentecost Sermon, using this sonnet, by my good friend Cathy Michell:
Meditation on Malcolm’s poem: Pentecost
5 This is the feast of fire, air, and water
6 Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The 3 elements:
1 Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
3 Today the church draws breath at last and sings.
7 The earth herself awakens to her maker 8 And is translated out of death to birth.
Acts 2 ‘Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house’.
The wind blowing yesterday and today – its roar and its visible effects – powerful, exciting/dangerous.
To the people of the Bible wind, breath and spirit were blended ideas (see M’s wind/breath in vv 1 and 3), all closely related in God who was seen to be all these things and therefore ‘gave ‘ all these things. The rush, roar and obvious effects of wind in nature, where paralleled by the equally obvious effects of breathing. In turn the spirit, the life in all creatures, was present because of the presence in them of breath.
In Genesis, when what ever existed or did not exist, was formless, void and dark, it is God who brings life, ‘a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’. Likewise in Genesis 2 we see God creating humans from the dust and then breathing into their nostrils the breath of life. Wind and breath are the same. They are of God and they bring the world and humans life, not just in the beginning but always. Just listen to the roar outside. Just listen to your own breath as it reanimates you over and over.
The prophet Ezekiel experienced the same in the valley of the dry bones. God tells the prophet that the bones will be brought from death to life (as M’s v8, ‘translated out of death to birth).
God says to the prophet, ‘I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live’. Ezekiel is instructed,‘Prophesy to the Breath..and say……’come from the 4 winds., O Breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live’.
In this passage all 3 meanings of the words ‘ruach’ (Heb) or ‘pneuma’ (Gk) (breath/spirit) are found overlaid upon each other. So Jesus in John’s gospel is seen to breath on his disciples when he appears to them one evening as they are locked inside a house after the crucifixion. John tells us that Jesus breathed on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit.
And then there’s that other account in John’s gospel about what Jesus said to the pharisee Nicodemus as they spoke about being born again. Here Jesus likens the nature and presence of The Spirit to the wind, saying,
‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of The Spirit.’ (Jn 3:8)
So we have looked at the key words here, wind and breath, but see also the word ‘awakening’ that Malcolm uses in v7. The Spirit awakens the earth, the disciples and us as from sleep. The Earth is awoken at its Creation by God. Each Spring is a new waking up from winter; we are woken by God’s loving spirit from our own deadliness, to a renewed eternal life (reborn as with was Nicodemus). And at our mortal, our actual death, we wake up to resurrection Life.
In Acts it is the Church that is reawakened and given ruach, breath and Spirit at Pentecost. It’s the scared, cowed, lost and grieving disciples in their lock-down who were miraculously given life again. And it was this that sent them out to ‘sing’ as Malcolm puts it – to preach their joyful gospel to all.
And how we are longing to do the same. To draw breath, as if for the first time, to sing again. But more than that – to speak new things, hope and joy; be heard and come alive again in this community. We want to be ‘translated out of death to birth’ again and to be agents of that Life that is Christ, to others. For this breath of God is also what inspires (inspire and expire!) us, what a lovely play on words. It is the life that is found in every creative act, every leap of the imagination, clear intuition, or innovative plan. There in art, music, song, study, craft or kitchen, in theatre or church. It sings out, it patterns our life in vibrant colour. It is what the Church is in constant need of, if it will let that wind blow through its dark, dusty and often closed down ways.
We need the wings Malcolm refers to in v 1, as he speaks about the wind blowing where it will. Wings allowing us to take flight and glide on the breeze carried aloft by the Spirit. These wings are also there to remind us of the hovering dove, balancing, held up by the air. The Spirit comes to us from God. It descends upon us and always hovers over the Church in blessing and protection. It reminds us of Jesus himself receiving God’s Spirit at his baptism. And we think of our own baptism and the life it has given us as we have journeyed a long time perhaps, in the company of Jesus. And this is why Malcolm’s second verse brings in our next element or image of Pentecost, and it’s…..
2 Today the hidden fountain flows and plays. (‘poured out’)
Water. Yes it is about baptism, but more than this, as water takes us back again to the Creation stories; the great sea over which God brooded; the rivers, lakes and streams emerging, even the great flood as it swept the earth clean of human sin yet led to new life, a new start – God’s promise to Noah through the rainbow sign, that He would establish an everlasting covenant of love with all humanity. And under that covenant (renewed on June 6th at the service in the chapel) we still stand.
Water, like breath, is essential to us. Just like our breathing, it is Life, it is God. And of the many Bible passages we might think of, it’s the story of Jesus’s meeting the woman at Jacob’s well that rings true here (John 4); their complex, subtle discussion about being thirsty, and about where to source a water to quench not only the thirst of the body but the craving and deep need of the soul.
‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water……those who drink of the water that I will give them, will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
This water carries the Spirit within it, as Jesus rather enigmatically refers to again, when he and the woman go on to speak together about worshipping God.
‘the hour is coming’, says Jesus, ‘when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth………..God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in truth.’
There is so much here for us to reflect on – the meaning and impact of our own baptism; our own heart and soul longing to be refreshed and washed by Jesus the Living Water of our Life; how God’s Holy Spirit flowing through our lives may be known and listened to. And what might it be calling us to as individuals and as church in this place?
And so to our 3rd element…………….
4 As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
12 All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace.
Acts 2 ‘Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each one of them.’
Look how cleverly Malcolm has used the double meaning of ‘tongues’ in his poem (and in the final line as well) to make us think, and to place this element of fire alongside what the Acts account says later about the disciples, that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and so praised God as if drunk on his good wine – with very loosened tongues!
If we were to think of just one Bible narrative of many that speak about God as fire, we have to turn aside, as Moses did, to the miracle of the burning bush. (Ex 3)
‘ There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
He is told by God in no uncertain terms, “Do not come any closer, Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. ……..At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’.
The elemental power, glory, and beauty of fire – yes and its holy danger too – is one with the nature of God himself. The Spirit is not only God’s breath upon us, God’s living water pouring down into out hearts, it’s the fire of his energies, passion, love and desire, burning within us and lighting all around. This is what energised those fragile disciples in their cold, closed dispirited house. This is where we too may source our own energy and only by noticing and waiting on this Spirit of fire as Moses did, can we hear God’s voice and his will for us as Christians and as Church.
And it’s to the Church and its mission that Malcolm turns at the end of his poem, by taking us back again to our Acts reading.
9 The right words come today in their right order
10 And every word spells freedom and release
11 Today the gospel crosses every border
13 Today the lost are found in His translation.
14 Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.
Pentecost is about words – and how appropriate then that Malcolm chose poetry, the craft of words, to express its truths in ‘right order’. The wind, the breath and the Spirit of God descends on the disciples, where God’s breath becomes God’s Word – that Word with a capital W which John tells us was at the beginning with God, ‘and the Word was God’. This Word becomes translated into human speech, into the disciples’ praise and preaching, into Peter’s sermon given to the crowds. And of course this translating power of the Spirit is understood by everyone, just as all humans understand wind, fire, water and spirit. This is the reverse of the OT’s Tower of Babel, an incomprehension wrought by human arrogance and sin. God’s Spirit makes all things clear, its wind blows away the chaff, its waters enliven and purify, its fire burns away impurities and forges new strengths.
These gospel words spoken now, cross every border. In them ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ as St Paul says (Galatians 3). These Spirit – inspired words embrace all those whose experiences of being human have breathed sorrow, hurt, illness, rejection, poverty, captivity, death. For them the Spirit speaks of freedom and release.
As Jesus says according to Luke’s gospel (Lk 4:18)
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
And as the hymn writer John Bell puts it so beautifully,
To the lost Christ shows his face, to the unloved he gives his embrace, to those who cry in pain or disgrace Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.
This is the Spirit’s work. And Her or His work is, finally, nothing more or less than LOVE – ‘whose mother-tongue is love, in every nation’as Malcolm says. What more is there to say?
This Pentecost, let’s turn aside again to stand before the love of God, to hear again for ourselves love’s invitation and allow ourselves once more to enjoy its dove-like tenderness in our lives. Let’s sing again, ‘Come down O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine’. And pray that by God’s generous grace and through the Spirit’s life-giving power, we too, like those disciples, can be given the words and the energy that will send us out to live that great love in the world.