The Holy Innocents (Refugee)

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem from my Anthology Waiting on the Word reflects on the fact that today, the fourth day of Christmas, is the feast day of the Holy Innocents. It is the day the Church remembers the story, told in Matthew’s Gospel of the appalling cruelty and wickedness of Herod in ordering the massacre of innocent children, in a bid to protect his own power-base. Appalling, but only too familiar. What Herod did then, is still being done by so many present day Herods. This scarred and wounded world is the world into which Jesus was born, the world he came to save, and amongst those brought by his blood through the grave and gate of death and into the bliss of Heaven are those children of Bethlehem who died for his name without ever knowing him. But he knows them, as he knows and loves every child in Syria, and he says of them, to every Herod, ‘Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do it unto me.’

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. she writes:

Last year we thought nothing could be worse than seeing the bodies of refugees wash up on the beaches of Europe. This year the awful news of the destruction of Aleppo and its people breaks in upon our TV screens and hearts. Sometimes we feel that our own personal safety and comfort should be denied, after all, with so many millions of people suffering, do we have a right to personal happiness? It must be a question that so many of us ask ourselves. Of course we do not have the right to personal safety and happiness but these events give us the opportunity for generosity and gratitude.

The image is self explanatory, a nameless and homeless family, and Malcolm reminds us in his sonnet that Jesus was born into just such a situation. There is nothing new in murderous power and bloodshed and we must allow the pain of it to sing in our blood as we pray the psalms on behalf of our refugee brothers and sister, “O Lord my God, in You I have taken refuge; Save me from all those who pursue me…deliver me.”

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

This sonnet has been adapted and set powerfully to Music by Steve Bell on his Album Keening For The Dawn. It was also quoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Christmas Sermon two years ago.

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.

 

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A Sonnet for 27th December: the Feast of St. John

The soaring glory of an eagle's flight

The soaring glory of an eagle’s flight

Two days after Christmas, on the 27th of December, the church keeps the feast of St. John the Evangelist. It is fitting that the Gospel writer whose prologue delves so deeply into the mystery of Incarnation, and whose words ‘The Word was made flesh’ are read at every Christmas Eucharist, should have his feast-day within the twelve days of Christmas.

In my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons I have gathered my sonnets for the four Evangelists into one sequence at the beginning. But here, in its proper place in the liturgical year, is my sonnet for St. John, the evangelist whose emblem is the Eagle. (for an account of the four emblems see here. I love John’s Gospel and you can hear the five talks I gave on Logos, Light, Life, Love and Glory in John’s Gospel via links on this page.)

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 poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

John

This is the gospel of the primal light,

The first beginning, and the fruitful end,

The soaring glory of an eagle’s flight,

The quiet touch of a beloved friend.

This is the gospel of our transformation,

Water to wine and grain to living bread,

Blindness to sight and sorrow to elation,

And Lazarus himself back from the dead!

This is the gospel of all inner meaning,

The heart of heaven opened to the earth,

A gentle friend on Jesus’ bosom leaning,

And Nicodemus offered a new birth.

No need to search the heavens high above,

Come close with John, and feel the pulse of Love.

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Nativity by Scott Cairns

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

We return to Scott Cairns in my series of readings of the poems in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 27th, is  Nativity, a beautiful reflection on an icon of the Nativity and how it draws us in. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. Linda writes:

As I read this poem I discerned a kind of radiance and inwardness that fascinated me. Again there are glimpses of the Divine that may be missed if we are not attentive or prayerful. We lean in and see a “tiny God.. slip briefly out of time.. miss the point or meet there”.

In the image, I created a fissure in the virgin blue, and beyond that there is a brightness that cannot be touched. It is a secret brightness, obscure and transcendent and cannot be possessed by us. All of life is potentially prayer that deepens us and makes our ‘ordinary’ time more loving and creative. But prayer is not an intellectual activity but an activity of love where we learn to be near God and learn too, never to leave the holiness of his nearness as we go about our daily duties.

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Nativity

As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend

the tiny God is wrapped

in something more than swaddle. The God

 

is tightly bound within

His blesséd mother’s gaze—her face declares

that she is rapt by what

 

she holds, beholds, reclines beholden to.

She cups His perfect head

and kisses Him, that even here the radiant

 

compass of affection

is announced, that even here our several

histories converge and slip,

 

just briefly, out of time. Which is much of what

an icon works as well,

and this one offers up a broad array

 

of separate narratives

whose temporal relations quite miss the point,

or meet there. Regardless,

 

one blithe shepherd offers music to the flock,

and—just behind him—there

he is again, and sore afraid, attended

 

by a trembling companion

and addressed by Gabriel. Across the ridge,

three wise men spur three horses

 

towards a star, and bowing at the icon’s

nearest edge, these same three

yet adore the seated One whose mother serves

 

as throne. Meantime, stumped,

the kindly Abba Joseph ruminates,

receiving consolation

from an attentive dog whose master may

yet prove to be a holy

messenger disguised as fool. Overhead,

 

the famous star is all

but out of sight by now; yet, even so,

it aims a single ray

 

directing our slow pilgrims to the core

where all the journeys meet,

appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,

 

where crouched among these other

lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers

receive that creatured air, and pray.

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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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The Song of the Shepherds by Richard Bauckham

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

In my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for December 26th, is  The Song of the Shepherds by Richard Bauckham. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. Linda writes:

 

The night could not contain their boundless praise. We thought that just a poem – until the night a song of solar glory……’ As I conceived this image I thought it would be ridiculous to try to capture ‘solar glory’, but nevertheless I did try to do that in an image that is pure imagination. At the centre is a blazing star directly above a tiny stable on the great curve of the Earth. Bethlehem is silhouetted on the right, and the wise men on the left, journey towards the Holy Family.

In our lives we are familiar with disturbing sounds, unprovoked rages and savage dreams, and often there is little to say, particularly for people who have tedious jobs, who pack our food on production lines, who deliver our parcels or clean up our streets. But occasionally, we may experience the ‘Glance’, spoken about in the poem of the 1st December. Those are the moments when the veil is drawn back from our eyes and we see the great wonder of our being. Maybe we cannot explain that surge of sweet joy that lasts for only a moment before we return to our humdrum lives, but it is often an unforgettable and incomprehensible moment of pure grace. These strange moments remind us that God is always around us and in us, and our part is to prepare an opening for God who may be seen or unseen, but who wants to irradiate us and will only be constrained by our own refusal.

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle


The Song of the Shepherds

 

We were familiar with the night.

We knew its favourite colours,

its sullen silence

and its small, disturbing sounds,

its unprovoked rages,

its savage dreams.

 

We slept by turns,

attentive to the flock.

We said little.

Night after night, there was little to say.

But sometimes one of us,

skilled in that way,

would pipe a tune of how things were for us.

 

They say that once, almost before time,

the stars with shining voices

serenaded

the new born world.

The night could not contain their boundless praise.

 

We thought that just a poem —

until the night

a song of solar glory,

unutterable, unearthly,

eclipsed the luminaries of the night,

as though the world were exorcised of dark

and, coming to itself, began again.

 

Later we returned to the flock.

The night was ominously black.

The stars were silent as the sheep.

Nights pass, year on year.

We clutch our meagre cloaks against the cold.

Our aging piper’s fumbling fingers play,

night after night,

an earthly echo of the song that banished dark.

It has stayed with us.

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Descent: A Poem and Song for Christmas Day

mangerMerry Christmas!

Milton wrote an Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, which no one can hope to emulate,and which I have also posted in a blog post this morning with a beautiful illustration by Linda Richardson, however I thought I would also offer you something of my own. In this poem I have followed Milton’s 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.

The poem is published in my book The Singing Bowl. I have also recorded the song myself, on Steve Bell’s amazing new retrospective four cd set ‘Pilgrimage’ As always you can hear me 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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Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton

image by Linda richardson

image by Linda richardson

Merry Christmas! In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for Christmas Day is a substantial extract from ‘Ode on the Moring of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created byLinda Richardson.Linda writes:

It is Christmas day and the poem recalls to my mind, all the beautiful images we have of Christmas. One of my favourites is the Magi. Perhaps it is because, of all the Christmas characters, they are very aware of what they are doing. They have travelled a long way and a great distance to worship a King. These are the Christmas ‘professionals’, the seers and Wise Men who have come prepared with gifts and acts of worship. As they reach their goal their faces are lit up with the light of the Holy Family.

I wonder where you would place yourself among the Christmas characters? Are you a prepared, professional with a worshipping heart? Perhaps you are like the shepherds and Christmas rolls right over you leaving you rather baffled and scratching your head. Perhaps you are an angel…perhaps you are a sheep. Whatever you feel you are, there is a place for all of us at the manger.

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

This is the month, and this the happy morn,

Wherein the Son of Heaven’s Eternal King,

Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring;

For so the holy sages once did sing,

That he our deadly forfeit should release,

And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

 

That glorious form, that light unsufferable,

And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,

Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table

To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,

He laid aside; and, here with us to be,

Forsook the courts of everlasting day,

And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

 

Say, heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein

Afford a present to the Infant God?

Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,

To welcome him to this his new abode,

Now while the heaven, by the sun’s team untrod,

Hath took no print of the approaching light,

And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

 

See, how from far, upon the eastern road,

The star-led wisards haste with odours sweet:

O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,

And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;

Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,

And join thy voice unto the Angel quire,

From out his secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.

 

THE HYMN.

It was the winter wild,

While the heaven-born child

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;

Nature, in awe to him,

Had doff’d her gaudy trim,

With her great Master so to sympathize:

It was no season then for her

To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.

 

Only with speeches fair

She wooes the gentle air

To hide her guilty front with innocent snow;

And on her naked shame,

Pollute with sinful blame,

The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;

Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes

Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

 

But he, her fears to cease,

Sent down the meek-ey’d Peace;

She, crown’d with olives green, came softly sliding

Down through the turning sphere,

His ready harbinger,

With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;

And, waving wide her myrtle wand,

She strikes an universal peace through sea and land.

 

Nor war, or battle’s sound,

Was heard the world around:

The idle spear and shield were high up hung;

The hooked chariot stood

Unstain’d with hostile blood;

The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;

And kings sat still with awful eye,

As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

 

But peaceful was the night,

Wherein the Prince of light

His reign of Peace upon the earth began:

The winds, with wonder whist,

Smoothly the waters kiss,

Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,

Who now hath quite forgot to rave,

While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

 

The stars, with deep amaze,

Stand fix’d in steadfast gaze,

Bending one way their precious influence;

And will not take their flight,

For all the morning light,

Or Lucifer, that often warn’d them thence;

But in their glimmering orbs did glow,

Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

 

And, though the shady gloom

Had given day her room,

The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,

And hid his head for shame,

As his inferiour flame

The new-enlighten’d world no more should need;

He saw a greater sun appear

Than his bright throne, or burning axletree, could bear.

 

The shepherds on the lawn,

Or e’er the point of dawn,

Sat simply chatting in a rustick row;

Full little thought they then,

That the mighty Pan

Was kindly come to live with them below;

Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,

Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.

 

When such musick sweet

Their hearts and ears did greet,

As never was by mortal finger strook;

Divinely-warbled voice

Answering the stringed noise,

As all their souls in blissful rapture took:

The air, such pleasure loth to lose,

With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.

 

Nature that heard such sound,

Beneath the hollow round

Of Cynthia’s seat, the aery region thrilling,

Now was almost won

To think her part was done,

And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;

She knew such harmony alone

Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.

 

At last surrounds their sight

A globe of circular light,

That with long beams the shamefac’d night array’d;

The helmed Cherubim,

And sworded Seraphim,

Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display’d,

Harping in loud and solemn quire,

With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s new-born Heir.

 

Such musick (as ‘tis said)

Before was never made,

But when of old the sons of morning sung,

While the Creator Great

His constellations set,

And the well-balanc’d world on hinges hung;

And cast the dark foundations deep,

And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.

 

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,

Once bless our human ears,

If ye have power to touch our senses so;

And let your silver chime Move in melodious time;

And let the base of Heaven’s deep organ blow;

And, with your ninefold harmony,

Make up full consort to the angelick symphony.

 

For, if such holy song

Enwrap our fancy long,

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold;

And speckled Vanity

Will sicken soon and die,

And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;

And Hell itself will pass away,

And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

 

Yea, Truth and Justice then

Will down return to men,

Orb’d in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,

Mercy will sit between,

Thron’d in celestial sheen,

With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;

And Heaven, as at some festival,

Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall …

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