Today is the Feast of Christ the King, and one of the readings set this year is Colossians 1:11-20 a passage containing the beautiful Hymn to Christ, the core verses of which are these: 15-17:
He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers — all things were created through him and for him. He exists before all things and in him all things hold together.
From stars that pierce the dark like living sparks,
To secret seeds that open every spring,
From spanning galaxies to spinning quarks,
Everything holds together and coheres,
Unfolding from the center whence it came.
And now that hidden heart of things appears,
The first-born of creation takes a name.
And shall I see the one through whom I am?
Shall I behold the one for whom I’m made,
The light in light, the flame within the flame,
Eikon tou theou, image of my God?
He comes, a little child, to bless my sight,
That I might come to him for life and light.
As usual you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or play button, but better still you can hear it with Alana’s music, hear the other three poems that are woven in with it and see the beautiful paintings by Julie Ann Stevens that go with the Album. You can check out Alana’s website here.
This Saturday, the 19th of November, is the feast day of Abess Hilda of Whitby, and I am posting this poem in her honour a couple of days early so that those who wish to copy or use it in services or for personal prayer on the day can do so. Saint Hilda was great leader of the Church in England and the first patron of English Christian poetry. She also presided at the crucial and controversial Synod of Whitby and brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I posted this sonnet on her feast day two years ago it happened that the church’s General Synod was meeting and I had that in mind as part of my prayerful remembrance of Hilda, as you will hear in the preamble to the recording of the poem.
This year its another aspect of her story I’d like to highlight, to which I also allude in my poem. This is the story of Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known. Bede tells the story of how he came to his vocation as a poet:
According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, (account taken from this Wiki article )
So as I remember Hilda with thanksgiving I also give thanks for all the churches and church leaders who have been patrons of the arts and especially those who have found a space and place for poetry in liturgy. I give thanks too for all those churches who have chosen to weave my own poems into liturgy and sermons and pray that those words have been fruitful
The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup
The sonnet also appears in my second poetry book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button
The post, and poem below were first posted here four and a half years ago, but some of my friends may find this poem helpful this morning, so I am posting it again. There’s really nothing else I can say.
It’s hard to see through tears, but sometimes its the only way to see, tears can be the turning point, the springs of renewal, and to know you have been wept for is to know that you are loved. ‘Jesus Wept’ is the shortest, sharpest, and most moving sentence in Scripture.
We have a God who weeps for us, weeps with us, understands to the depths and from the inside the rerum lachrymae, the tears of things.
Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for the images. as always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ buton if it appears.
The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed
All Saints Day falls on November 1st, so here is my sonnet for All Saints Day, a little in advance, for anyone who might want to read or make use of it in a service. On the feast of All Saints we celebrate the light of Christ reflected in the saints, living and departed who surround and inspire us even in our present darkness. The image I have chosen to accompany this poem is of candles lit to celebrate All Saints day in Poland. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title. This sonnet comes from my sequence Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. All of my books are available from this page on Amazon USA and this page on Amazon UK.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. Feel free to make use of this poem in all Saints or All Souls services, just include an acknowledgement of the book it’s taken from -thanks
Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect traditionally set for the second in Advent, and now used, in the new common lectionary for this Sunday, the 23rd October: Bible Sunday Here’s the whole collect:.
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is surely one of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the Bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet about reading the Bible:
When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.
But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.
But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.
Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.
But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.
After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak. Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain. Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow… So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.
Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written
St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox
This Tuesday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour, especially as, in our lectionary, this is the year when all our Gospel readings are taken from his gospel. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year. My sonnets, in that series, present the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.
‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘ St. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 120-202 AD) – Adversus Haereses 3.11.8
For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver. The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.
For the many churches that use the Common Lectionary, tomorrow’s Bible readings will include Genesis 32:22-31, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. So I thought I would re-post my poem about that encounter, the sonnet which goes with the painting on the cover of Parable and Paradox.
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel is one in a suite of five sonnets on the theme of Wilderness which were originally composed in response to a set of paintings by Adan Boulter and exhibited in Lent 2015 at St. Margaret’s Westminster . I refer to that in the lead-up to my reading of this sonnet.
My poem is voiced for Jacob in his life-changing encounter, that long wrestle in the dark that will change his name to Israel and change his future and ours for ever. This meeting with an angel is the harbinger of his dramatic encounter and reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, the brother-victim he had deceived but in whose face he now recognises the face of God. Though I have voiced this poem for Jacob, it is written in full consciousness that his story is also ours, that we too, in our brokenness and alienation must also wrestle with, and be changed by the Love that wounds and heals.