On this most solemn day I offer a much longer poem, but it is worth the effort. It is an excerpt from one of the first poems ever written in English, likely in the 8th century. The word "rood" was an early medieval name for the cross of Christ, it comes from the same word we use for "rod." The poem's narrator is the Cross itself. One can hear the very particular voice of an early Anglo-Saxon Christian, writing with the pagan Norse in mind - those who still clung to the old dying magic, even two centuries after S Augustine's arrival in England. Trees, particularly the Yggdrasil, were very significant in Norse mythology, and the writer of this poem clearly wants to convert the pagan image to Christ.
From “The Dream of the Rood”
8th C Anglo-Saxon, trans. By Richard Hammer
The Rood (the cross of Christ) speaks:
“It was long past – I still remember it –
That I was cut down at the copse’s end,
Moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
Told me to hold aloft their criminals,
Made me a spectacle. Men carried me
Upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.
“And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God’s word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.
“Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
“A rood I was raised up; and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
The scars can still be clearly seen on me,
The open wounds of malice. Yet might I
Not harm them. They reviled us both together.
I was made wet all over with the blood
Which poured out from his side, after He had
Sent forth His spirit. And I underwent
Full many a dire experience on that hill.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds
His shining beauty; shadows passed across,
Black in the darkness. All creation wept,
Bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross….
“Now you may understand, dear warrior,
That I have suffered deeds of wicked men
And grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
That far and wide on earth men honour me,
And all this great and glorious creation,
And to this beacon offers prayers. On me
The Son of God once suffered; therefore now
I tower mighty underneath the heavens,
And I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became the cruelest of tortures,
Most hateful to all nations, till the time
I opened the right way of life for men.”
Sometime early in the fifth century, S Cyril, then the old bishop of Alexandria, stepped up into the pulpit on Maundy Thursday and spoke these words to the gathered faithful:
Our own bishop, Jonathan, was inspired by these words to compose a hymn - which is today's offering. Bp Jonathan captures the "back and forth" of S Cyril, and brings the words that were spoken 1500 years ago to a new freshness. I want to highlight one stanza:
What wonder shows a mystery like this?
That he who has formed and weighed the earth,
Before whom every knee should bow,
Now wipes with his palms the soles of his servants?
Not too many people get to wash other people's feet. It is one of the weird (and wonderful?) privileges of being a priest. The oddest moment of the experience is when one touches the sole of another's foot. Think about it.... how many people have touched the sole of your foot? How many soles have you touched? I'm guessing not many. This hymn brings out not just the humility of the action, but the profound vulnerability and intimacy of it as well.
For Maundy Thursday
By Bishop Jonathan Goodall
WHAT wonder is more awesome than this?
That he who has clothed himself with light
And binds the waters in the clouds
Is wrapped in a towel and bound in a girdle?
What wonder could be stranger than this?
That he who contains the surging waves
Now pours the water in a bowl
And washes the feet of his own disciples?
What wonder shows a mystery like this?
That he who has formed and weighed the earth,
Before whom every knee should bow,
Now wipes with his palms the soles of his servants?
What glory is more perfect than this?
That loving his own until the end,
Should stoop to take the lowest place
And bend to the earth and kneel before his friends?
At the beginning of Lent we watched as Jesus climbed a mountain and was transfigured. Now, at the end of Lent, we will watch as he climbs another mountain, Olivet, to the Garden called Gethsemene. Rowan Williams wrote about how these two mountains not only frame our Lent, but also define our lives in the world:
In this beautiful poem, Gethsemane, Williams reflects on how the olive trees in Gethsemane, with their twisted trunks and branches, represent the suffering that took place here two millennia ago. He then compares the cracked bark of the trees to the cracks in the Wailing Wall, "the broad stones packed by the hand of God," in which the devout leave "little messages to fill the cracks." He concludes by reflecting on the fact that some of these trees were there 2000 years ago, and hold in themselves the memory of "the densest word of all, abba."
As S Matthew records: "He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father ("abba"), if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done."
By Rowan Williams
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees' clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.
Today we have a brilliant poem that, thanks to Rowan Williams, is finally available in English. The welsh poet David Gwenallt Jones was raised Catholic, but in the bright and hopeful optimism of the early twentieth century he became a Marxist. Like so many of those caught up in the bright possibilities of a godless future for humanity, he became completely overwhelmed with despair. The collective evils of the New Dream made him profoundly disillusioned. More importantly, though, he was struck by the darkness that he saw lying within every human heart. He eventually returned to the faith with a renewed sense of just how powerful the Christian Gospel is.
As I said a few days ago, on Maundy Thursday, after the Mass of the Last Supper, we will watch as the Church is stripped bare of all ornament. We too are stripped bare, and the first half of this sonnet describes the situation well, no airs are allowed into the Sacred Triduum: "Take off the business suit, the old-school tie, The gown, the cap, drop the reviews, awards, Certificates, stand naked in your sty."
The turn: "Lost in the wood, we sometimes glimpse the sky..." But despite the continual descent of the Word into our lives, "we cannot hear, the alien voices high." And once again on Good Friday we, "Like wolves, we lift our snouts: Blood, blood, we cry," ("Crucify him! Crucify him!"), and we condemn, and then adore, "The blood that bought us so we need not die."
By D. Gwenallt Jones
Translated from Welsh by Rowan Williams
Take off the business suit, the old-school tie,
The gown, the cap, drop the reviews, awards,
Certificates, stand naked in your sty,
A little carnivore, clothed in dried turds.
The snot that slowly fills our passages
Seeps up from hollows where the dead beasts lie;
Dumb stamping dances spell our messages,
We only know what makes our arrows fly.
Lost in the wood, we sometimes glimpse the sky
Between the branches, and the words drop down
We cannot hear, the alien voices high
And hard, singing salvation, grace, life, dawn.
Like wolves, we lift our snouts: Blood, blood, we cry,
The blood that bought us so we need not die.
Shakespeare is not known for being effervescent in his piety, but there are a few sonnets that reveal something of the undercurrent of his faith. Sonnet 146 is a great example. Christ once said: "What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" This seems the preoccupying thought of the Bard in this sonnet.
There are so many vivid images in this poem that it's difficult to know where to begin. There are the "rebel powers" that are against him, echoing the language of S Paul. There is the image of him being a building, which is painted outwardly "so costly gay." And the big question when he contemplates his mortality: "Why so large cost, having so short a lease, Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend? "
Then, with all sonnets, there is the shift. In the nineth line he calls himself to repentance.
by William Shakespeare
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
These rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.
This is a beautiful sonnet by Malcolm Guite. This is his introduction to it:
We come now, with Palm Sunday, to the beginning of Holy Week and I have explored the idea that what was happening ‘out there’ and ‘back then’ as Christ entered Jerusalem is also happening ‘in here’ and ‘right now’. There is a Jerusalem of the heart. Our inner life also has its temple and palaces, its places of corruption, its gardens of rest, its seat of judgement.
By Malcolm Guite
Now to the gate of my Jerusalem,
The seething holy city of my heart,
The saviour comes. But will I welcome him?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing,
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal he is bringing
Changes their tune. I know what lies behind
The surface flourish that so quickly fades;
Self-interest, and fearful guardedness,
The hardness of the heart, its barricades,
And at the core, the dreadful emptiness
Of a perverted temple. Jesus come
Break my resistance and make me your home.
It would be true to say that, more often than not, the "orthodox" Christian understanding of almost everything involves a balancing of two concepts which on the surface seem contradictory. For instance, there is One God, but Three Persons. Again, we believe that Jesus Christ is not part man and part God, but fully man, and fully God. "Heresy," more often than not, is simply one side of a reality rather than both. As someone once described it, heresy is almost always an over-simplification of an important idea.
Yesterday we saw one side of the reality of Man - what so many of the ancient prayers of the Church describe as our "wretchedness." But according to Scripture that is only one side of the truth. There is also, in Man, the peculiar capacity for good. We are, after all, created in the "Divine Image." This capacity for good is something rooted in our humanity, something we share with all human beings, not just other Christians.
Today's poem is an ode to four of the Divine attributes which Blake is arguing are present in Man because we are made in the Divine Image: Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love.
The Divine Image
By William Blake
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
A week today at 3pm we will solemnly commemorate the final hours of our Lord's Passion. A part of the Liturgy of Good Friday includes what are called the Improperia, or the Reproaches. In some Churches they are called "The Solemn Adoration of Christ Crucified." The refrain is the voice of Christ, speaking to us from the cross:
My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!
S Francis of Assisi wrote to his friars: "it is you who have crucified Christ and crucify him still, when you delight in your vices and sins." (Admonitio 5.3) The reproaches are Christ, on the Cross, asking us: "Why?"
What more could I have done for you?
I raised you to the height of majesty,
but you have raised me high on a cross.
On Good Friday the Church will be stripped bare of everything, and so will we be: none of the pious platitudes, none of the consoling of ourselves that we are "doing our best," enough of our good intentions. It's all stripped away. The fact is that our lives are so much defined by our sins, and (as in yesterday's poem), we often find the abyss between ourselves and God quite "sweet." Stripped of our sins, what would we even look like? Maria Melendez Kelson dares to think.
The final two stanzas represent the moment when, despite our wretched condition, we come forward and kiss the feet of the Crucified. We recognise that his death (for us, and by us) is our only hope of immortality.
By Maria Melendez Kelson
Jesus, I want my sins back.
My prattle, pride, and private prices --
climbing, clinching, clocking --
I might loan you a few for the evening,
so you don’t show up at your own crucifixion
naked of all purpose.
But for God’s sake, don’t spill any
redemption on them! They’re my
signature looks. Body by Envy.
Make up & wardrobe provided by Avarice. Lord,
if you take away my inordinate cravings,
what the hell’s left? Do you know
how much I paid for my best rages?
I want them all back if they’re
so To Die For. Else shred my palms,
wash my face with spit, let the whip
unlace my flesh and free the naked blood,
let me be tumbled to immortality
with the stew of flood debris
that is my life.
Today's poem is a tough one. Paul Mariani's Solar Ice has three stages. The first represents the journey to God through the beauty of the world. The second represents the revelation of that same God in the mystery of the Holy Communion. The third represents the narrator's rejection of both in favour of a personal hell. It has no clear happy ending, and seems to be more of a confession, and that is where its power lay. Besides being such a wonderful use of the imagery of the icy cold of winter and the thaw of spring to represent the human heart, I'll offer just a few thoughts about what I think Mariani is doing...
The first stanza... Last night at our Catholic Basics/Catechism group, we read these words by S Augustine, which illustrate Mariani's description of how the mind and soul of Man is drawn toward God through Beauty:
The second stanza... Mariani brings out a theme we have explored in our Friday study group, looking at Rowan Williams God With Us. The Crucifixion of Christ is the centre-point of history, around which everything else turns and derives its meaning. It is TS Eliot's "still point of the turning world" where "the dance is." Every celebration of the Holy Communion becomes an extension of this "still point," which Mariani represents in the priest lifting the Host over his head. The Host of bread, joined sacramentally with the death of Christ on the cross, becomes "a small white sun around which everything seemed to coalesce, cohere & choir." But "the thought of some old insult likewise reared its head" stops the "thaw" that has begun.
The final stanza... the circle of the Host diminishes from a Sun to a tiny "o." When the self turns in upon itself, in bitterness, the warmth of Divine Grace ceases to be something the narrator can experience, but it remains a "jagged O at the center of my world." But perhaps the light in the final stanza is the fact that the narrator recognises this as a self-imposed "hell, or some lovely ether foretaste of it." He realises that in giving way to the bitterness in his heart he is left with "darkness everywhere, & ice & ice & ice & more ice on the way, and this sweet abyss between myself & You." There is no shallow piety here, he acknowledges that there is a sweetness felt by our bitterness - but its consequence is an abyss.
by Paul Mariani
The sudden shock of what you really are.
Early March. The tentative return of afternoons.
Saturday, and Mass again. The four.
All about swelling buds on beech & ash
& maples. Crocuses & snowdrops
trilling. Four months impacted ice at last
receding from the north side of the house,
and bobbing robins back & soon, soon, red-
winged blackbirds strutting on the lawn.
Soon too the sweet familiar groundswell
of peepers in the marshes. Reasons
enough to melt the frozen heart.
Father lifted the host above his head & prayed:
a small white sun around which everything
seemed to coalesce, cohere & choir. But
as I raised my head, the thought
of some old insult likewise reared
its head, and in that instant the arctic
hatred flared, shutting out my world
& spring, along with, yes, my lovely wife & sons,
a no & no & yet another no, until I caught
myself refuse the proffered gift of Love.
At once the host diminished to a tiny o:
an empty cipher, like some solar disc
imploding on itself. Only my precious
hate remained, the self-salt taste
of some old wound rubbed raw again,
a jagged O at the center of my world.
Ah, so this is it, I whistled through my teeth.
So this is hell, or some lovely ether
foretaste of it, alone at ninety north,
with darkness everywhere, & ice & ice
& ice & more ice on the way, and this
sweet abyss between myself & You
Today's poem builds on some previous themes, but takes us in a different direction. Many thanks to John Turner for suggesting The Second Coming by Yeats. It took the literary world by storm in 1919, and it might shake a few readers today.
The Second Coming is a prophetic poem, and Yeats himself in 1936 wrote to a friend, regarding the rapid changes in European culture, that this poem "written some 16 or 17 years ago, foretold what is happening." It is about that strange theme introduced in the New Testament in vague and mysterious ways, what S Paul called mysterium iniquitatis, "the mystery of iniquity." The Apostolic writers called it by different names: the Antichrist, or the Man of Lawlessness, the Beast. I am almost certain that Yeats had this passage of Scripture in mind when he composed this poem:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed... (2 Thessalonians 2)
It is a strange passage, and it has intrigued readers ever since. The image, at least as Yeats interprets it, seems to be that there is some form of evil that will emerge in history, and it will appear as a Saviour of some kind, but is really demonic (the "beast slouches... toward Bethlehem to be born"). Remember that he is writing this poem whilst Europe is rebuilding itself after the Great War. More than just rebuilding, he sees that Europe is rebuilding itself in a very different way, and in a new direction. In this poem he is saying... "Yes, we are building something, but what is it? And are we sure this is what we should be building?" He wants to scare his readers, and he succeeds.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?