A poem for the second Sunday of Christmas, January 2, 2022

‘Tis the season of ennui. That American season between the week before Christmas and the week after New Year’s Day. The seasonal binge of activities, food and drink. How do the faithful resist this powerful cultural vortex? For my household, almost all plans were canceled due to health concerns. Whether in my house or in others’ homes, the concern that a scratchy throat, a sneeze, or a cough may be something worse than a seasonal head cold.

Christmas Day. My wife and I woke early and walked through the village at sunrise. The village was quiet. One pickup truck passed by us; heading south. But that was all.

Edmund Spenser’s sonnet Amoretti LXVIII includes the lines: “This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,/And grant that we for whom thou diddest die,/Being with thy dear blood clean wash’d from sin,/May live for ever in felicity.” Christmas Day was quiet and full of joy and gratitude.

I introduced the family to Gian-Carlo Menotti’s 1950 libretto “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” There was quiet resistance. It is not a Disney musical. There are no Marvel comics superheroes. The cast is spare: three kings, a disabled child, and his mother. Yet as the opera unfolded, like all good stories, the children were captivated by the narrative. They laughed. Asked questions, what is happening now? Why are they singing? Are they really kings? And at the tense, comedic, warm, pivotal moment of the libretto King Melchior sings of love alone. That may be the remedy to ennui. Quiet, persistent, patient love.


Excerpt from “Amahl and the Night Visitors”
by Gian-Carlo Menotti

The child we seek
doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning,

he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life,
and receive our death,
and the keys to his city belong to the poor.

A poem for the first Sunday of Christmas 2021

Christmas Day.[1] Last year. The Advent candles lit and allowed to burn all day. And into the evening hours. And until they extinguished themselves. With a death in the family, last year’s Christmas day was surreal and somber. Many activities that would have normally taken place did not due to pandemic restrictions.

This photo, from last year, captures many memories and thoughts. The white candle, sometimes called Christ’s candle in the Advent wreath, represents light, purity, and victory.

Light shines brightest in the dead of winter, in the confusion of depression and folly, and in the feeble snatching after victory from the gutter of defeat.

The poet, speaking in the voice of the magnus, asks “Birth or Death?” Whether King Baltazar, Kasper, or Melchior, the poet does not reveal. “I should be glad of another death.” This line echoes in my mind. Why not, I should be glad for another death? Or, I should be glad of death? Wrestle with this poem during the “worst time of the year.” Consider if the liotodes in the poem is “satisfactory.” Avoid googling what it means. Close the laptop. Turn off the mobile device. Watch the candle light and ruminate.


The Journey Of The Magi[2]

by T. S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


NOTES:
[1] Post updated December 30, 2021.

[2] The Poetry Archive, “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot read by the poet. Accessed December 30, 2021. https://poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi/

A poem for the fourth Sunday of Advent 2021

Early. An hour before sunrise. Coffee and poems at the kitchen counter. All the apartment was asleep. I read: “Fyre, erd, air, and watter cleir,/To Him gife loving, most and lest,/That come into so meik maneir;/Et nobis puer natus est.”

I love old things. Ancient verse among my favorite. These lines from William Dunbar’s poem “On the Nativity of Christ”[1] take a bit of reading and rereading to unpack the Scottish and Latin lines. And the poem “Veni, Creator Spiritus”[2] by John Dryden features the lines: “And peace, the fruit of love, bestow;/And, lest our feet should step astray,/Protect, and guide us in the way.”

What poem best fits the fourth Sunday of advent? The angels announced that the promised Messiah had come to bring peace.

Distracted. For many minutes I was distracted by a web site with images of famous paintings[3] of the adoration of the shepherds. Maybe it was an hour of distraction. I was frying eggs and toasting bread while looking at the paintings. William Blake’s illustration of Milton’s work[4] is omitted from the collection. His imagination of a brilliant ball of angels in the sky above shepherds[5] remained with me.

Then there was an explosion of household morning activities and responsibilities.

It was not until after the noon meal that my thoughts returned to this meditation. The fourth Sunday of Advent. Peace. The priest mentioned in the sermon that there is a liturgy of life we all participate in daily. He encouraged us to ditch the device and be present. Presence. That reminded me of the following poem by Denise Levertov.


Making Peace
by Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.


NOTES:
[1] This is a helpful blog post and video to help appreciate Dunbar’s poem. “On the Nativity of Christ. A poem by William Dunbar” by Celtic Cadences, June 7, 2009. Accessed December 19, 2021. https://celticcadences.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/on-the-nativity-of-christ-a-poem-by-william-dunbar-court-poet-james-4th-iv-scotland/
[2] “Veni Creator Spiritus” by John Dryden. Accessed December 19, 2021. https://www.bartleby.com/337/580.html
[3] “10 Most Famous Adoration of the Shepherds Paintings” by Zuzanna Stanska, December 25, 2017. Accessed December 19, 2021. https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/famous-adoration-of-the-shepherds-paintings/
[4] From John Milton’s poem: “At last surrounds their sight/A globe of circular light,/That with long beams the shame-fac’d Night array’d;/The helmed Cherubim/And sworded Seraphim/Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display’d,…” “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton. Accessed December 19, 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44735/on-the-morning-of-christs-nativity
[5] Illustration 2 to Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: The Annunciation to the Shepherds from the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Accessed December 19, 2021. https://emuseum.huntington.org/objects/64/illustration-2-to-miltons-on-the-morning-of-christs-nativ

A poem for the third Sunday of Advent 2021

An ink study of Viktor Paul Mohn’s illustration

Glad for weariness? The idea that things would slow down last week was an illusion I tried to maintain. My desire was to avoid the hectic and dwell deeply during this Advent season. But the pace of projects at work and helping neighbors and family with medical appointments propelled me and my household through the week.

So, my thoughts remained on the themes of the second week of Advent. Though it is now Gaudete Sunday. The annunciation continues to capture my attention.

In Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Annunciation Dialogue,” he considered the gospel of Luke account. “Be it unto me according to your word,” said Mary. There is wonder, mystery, and humility in the story that I can not escape.

From a sea of fractured thoughts, I washed ashore from the shipwreck of last week. I drew a quick ink study of Viktor Paul Mohn’s no room illustration. The plan was to post the drawing, a thought, and a poem. But the thought and poem disappeared. The notes I left myself read:

  • Shepherd’s Candle
  • rose or pink
  • shepherds rejoice at the announcement from the angels
  • joy and rejoicing

Though the drawing above does not match the following poem, I am reminded of what Fr. Olsen shared to congregants this weekend. From the gospel of Luke, he said, that people were in expectation. The annunciation may have been a secret to all but a few, but there was an unexplained expectation in the hearts and minds of people.


The Shepherd’s Song

by Georg Johannes Gick

I am the shepherd’s song, I sing
here in the stable’s shadow,
and all men come; like lambs I bring
them to the Christmas meadow.

I call them through the winter night,
lost out there in the bitter cold;
Oh come and see how love is bright
in the Good Shepherd’s fold!

If there should come some weary one
still late at night that I could bless,
I’ll be content my singing’s done
and glad for weariness.

A poem for the second Sunday of Advent 2021

An ink study of Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation

On a note card is written thoughts and themes about the second week of Advent.

  • Love
  • Faith
  • Bethlehem
  • purple candle
  • the prophet, Micah, foretold the birthplace in Bethlehem
  • the city of David
  • preparation for the king

My desire was to compose some meaningful prose to mark the celebration.

But, very early this morning, I watched sleet turn to snow and then to rain. My mind drifted in this irrational season. Eventually, I put the pen down, stuffed the notecard in my pocket and went for a long walk with a friend and brother. This poem by Madeleine L’Engle seems most appropriate for this second week.


After Annunciation

Madeleine L’Engle

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.

A poem for the first Sunday of Advent 2021

The youngest child asked, “Why is the candle purple?”

I lit the first candle of the Advent wreath as we gathered around the dining table and prepared to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent.

It is called the “prophets candle” and it is purple to represent royalty, I said. The first candle reminds us of the hope God’s people had that a King was promised.

How does it do that? the child asked.

Let’s read and find out.

We read passages from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel of Luke.

After the first Sunday of Advent celebration, my tired mind tried to find a suitable poem. Thankfully, I had set aside a half dozen poems for consideration last year. This Sabbath poem from Wendell Berry seems to fit with the theme of the prophets candle.


Sabbath Poem VII

Wendell Berry

The clearing rests in song and shade.
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.
We join our work to Heaven’s gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy
Of widest worth.
High Heaven’s Kingdom come on earth.
Imagine Paradise.
O Dust, arise!

A poem for the second Sunday of Christmas

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, block print Christmas card, 2020

Carol

R. S. Thomas

What is Christmas without
snow? We need it
as bread of a cold
climate, ermine to trim

our sins with, a brief
sleeve for charity’s
scarecrow to wear its heart
on, bold as a robin.

A poem for the first Sunday of Christmas

Hill Christmas

R.S. Thomas

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.

The story behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Coffeehouse Junkie

Since the tradition curating advent poems[1] was started a few years ago, I found this story[2] particularly interesting.

NOTES:
[1] Advent Poems (or the 12 days of Christmas poetry), December 13, 2012, https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2012/12/13/2013-advent-poems-or-the-12-days-of-christmas-poetry/.
[2] Justin Taylor, “THE TRUE STORY OF PAIN AND HOPE BEHIND “I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY”,” http://www.thegospelcoalition.org, December 21, 2014, accessed December 11, 2016 https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/12/21/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/.

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A poem for the third Sunday of Advent

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Mary Oliver

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
For you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances– but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
While the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
As I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.