The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine.
Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth 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.
“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…”
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. This coming Sunday, 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:
As we approach Remembrance Sunday I am reposting this sonnet about the two minutes silence, which was first published in my book Sounding the Seasons. I’m posting it a few days early so that any one who wishes to, can use it in services or events on this hundredth anniversary of the armistice in which Remembrance Sunday falls on Remembrance day itself.
So here is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title.
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed
Halloween seems to be creeping up on Christmas in the crass commercialism stakes, even here in England, where the tradition is less strong! Halloween itself simply means the eve of all Hallows, and All Hallows is the Christian feast of All Saints, or All Saints Day’ a day when we think particularly of those souls in bliss who, even in this life, kindled a light for us, or to speak more exactly, reflected for us and to us, the already-kindled light of Christ!, It is followed immediately on November 2nd by All Souls Day. the day we remember all the souls who have gone before us into the light of Heaven. It is good that we should have a season of the year for remembrance and a time when we feel that the veil between time and eternity is thin and we can sense that greater and wider communion of saints to which we belong. It is also good and right that the Church settled this feast on a time in the turning of the year when the pre-Christian Celtic religions were accustomed to think of and make offerings for the dead. But it was right that, though they kept the day, they changed the custom. The greatest and only offering, to redeem both the living and the dead, has been made by Christ and if we want to celebrate our loving connections we need only now make gifts to the living, as we do in offering sweets to the ‘trick or treaters’ in this season, and far more profoundly in exchanging gifts at Christmas.
Anyway, given that both these seasons of hospitality and exchange have been so wrenched from their first purpose in order to sell tinsel and sweeties, I thought I might redress the balance a little and reclaim this season with a sonnet for All Souls/All Saints that remembers the light that shines in darkness, who first kindled it, and how we can all reflect it.
If your church is marking all saints or all souls day do feel free to print the words or use the recording.
The image which follows this poem, and takes up one of its key lines, is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.
St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox
This Thursday, 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. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year. My sonnets in that series, include a mini-sequence on 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. In this iconographic tradition Luke’s emblem is the ox, the lowly servant 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.
Continuing my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, the 29th September brings us the feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is known as Michaelmas in England, and this first autumn term in many schools and universities is still called the Michaelmas term. The Archangel Michael is traditionally thought of as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and, following an image from the book of Revelation, is often shown standing on a dragon, an image of Satan subdued and bound by the strength of Heaven. He is also shown with a drawn sword, or a spear and a pair of scales or balances, for he represents, truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose. He is celebrated and revered in all three Monotheistic religions. There is a good, full account of him here. And here is a bright and playful image of him by the Cambridge Artist Rebecca Merry, who has done a number of icons and other images of the Archangels. You can see more of her art here, and also in the Byard Art Gallery.
And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright
And here is a response to the poem from photographer Margot Krebs Neale, weaving the words at the heart of the poem into the heart-shaped image. More of Margot’s work can be seen here.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or the title. Many of you have commented on how good it is to be able to hear the poems, and I’m glad thats working.