That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

“Christmas” by John Betjeman

Merry Christmas!

That Blessed Dependancy

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember…

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“Aaron” by George Herbert

           HOLINESS on the head, 
    Light and perfection on the breast, 
Harmonious bells below raising the dead 
    To lead them unto life and rest. 
            Thus are true Aarons drest.  

            Profaneness in my head, 
    Defects and darkness in my breast, 
A noise of passions ringing me for dead 
    Unto a place where is no rest : 
            Poor priest ! thus am I drest. 

            Only another head 
    I have, another heart and breast, 
Another music, making live not dead, 
    Without whom I could have no rest : 
            In Him I am well drest. 

            Christ is my only head, 
    My alone only heart and breast, 
My only music, striking me ev’n dead ; 
    That to the old man I may rest, 
            And be in Him new drest. 

            So holy in my Head, 
    Perfect and light in my dear Breast, 
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead, 
    But lives in me while I do rest), 
            Come, people ;  Aaron’s drest. 

Exegeting the Hexateuch (Gesundheit!)

The great commentator and Biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad wrote the following words at the end of the Introduction to his commentary on Genesis [emphases added]:

Franz Rosenzweig once remarked wittily that the sign “R” (for the redactor of the Hexateuch documents, so lowly esteemed in Protestant research) should be interpreted as Rabbenu, “our master,” because basically we are dependent only on him, on his great work of compilation and his theology, and we receive the Hexateuch at all only from his hands. From the standpoint of Judaism, that is consistent. But for us, in respect to hermeneutics, even the redactor is not “our master.” We receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus Christ, and therefore all exegesis of the Old Testament depends on whom one thinks Jesus Christ to be. If one sees in him the bringer of a new religion, then one will consistently examine the chief figures of the patriarchal narratives for their inward religious disposition and by, say, drawing religious “pictures from life” will bring into the foreground what comes close to Christianity or even corresponds with it. But this “pious” view is unsatisfactory because the principal subject of the account in the Genesis story is not the religious characteristics of the patriarchs at all. Any mention of them is almost an aside. The real subject of the account is everywhere a quite definite act of Yahweh, into which the patriarchs are drawn, often with quite perplexing results. So the first interest of the reader must be in what circumstances and in what way Yahweh’s guidance is given, and what consequences result from it. In all the variety of the story, can we perhaps recognize some things that are typical of the action of God towards men? Then we must go on to raise the chief question: can we not recognize a common link even between the revelation of God in the old covenant and that in the new, a “type”? The patriarchal narratives include experiences which Israel had of a God who revealed himself and at the same time on occasions hid himself more deeply. In this very respect we can see a continuity between the Old Testament and the New. In the patriarchal narratives, which know so well how God can conceal himself, we see a revelation of God which precedes his manifestation in Jesus Christ. What we are told here of the trials of a God who hides himself and whose promise is delayed, and yet of his comfort and support, can readily be read into God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike

Joe Rawls, over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic, recently posted the poem below. I was very glad to be reminded of it. I don’t know much about John Updike’s personal faith, but these lines powerfully express the scandalous particularity of Christ’s Resurrection.

Eastertide (in which we still find ourselves, and will for another several weeks) is not about springtime and new life and the annual cycle of rebirth. It is not about a generalized spiritual hope. It is certainly not about the afterlife.

Rather, from the Easter Vigil through the Great Fifty Days—and on every Sunday of the year—the Church has the audacity to announce that the man Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died and was buried, on the third day was raised from the dead. It happened at Jerusalem, in Judea, while Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod the puppet King of the Jews, and in Rome Tiberius claimed the mantle of divine emperor.

And what Updike gets (and a fair number of preachers seem to miss) is that the particularity of it all is actually what gives the Resurrection of Christ its universal significance. Because the One Man has conquered death, all humankind has been set free from the fear of the grave. Because Christ was raised in his own body—though transformed and glorified—“my flesh also shall rest in hope.” Because Jesus has become the firstfruits of them that slept, so too must my corruptible body “put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”

All of this (and much more!) is contained in the announcement that “The Lord is Risen indeed!” Here John Updike explicates it with poetic power (and an economy greater than this poor preacher’s):

Make no mistake:  if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh:  ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache’,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance. 

“Holy Baptism” by John Keble

In honor of my son’s baptism this past Sunday, I share the priest and poet John Keble’s words.

In the sixth stanza, Keble makes reference to “the young soldier duly sworn.” Though it is not included in the present rite, earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer called for the following words at the moment when the newly baptized person is marked with the sign of the Cross:

“We receive this Child into the Congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. Amen.” 

I can only speculate as to the reasons why that prayer was dropped from the service. Probably discomfort with the martial imagery, and concerns about misunderstanding of the word “manfully.” But even so, I love the beautiful way it encompasses and encourages the whole of the Christian life from beginning to end. I pray it for both of my children, and for each person that I have the privilege to baptize.

Where is it mothers learn their love? –
In every Church a fountain springs
O’er which th’ Eternal Dove
Hovers out softest wings.

What sparkles in that lucid flood
Is water, by gross mortals eyed:
But seen by Faith, ’tis blood
Out of a dear Friend’s side.

A few calm words of faith and prayer,
A few bright drops of holy dew,
Shall work a wonder there
Earth’s charmers never knew.

O happy arms, where cradled lies,
And ready for the Lord’s embrace,
That precious sacrifice,
The darling of His grace!

Blest eyes, that see the smiling gleam
Upon the slumbering features glow,
When the life-giving stream
Touches the tender brow!

Or when the holy cross is signed,
And the young soldier duly sworn,
With true and fearless mind
To serve the Virgin-born.

But happiest ye, who sealed and blest
Back to your arms your treasure take,
With Jesus’ mark impressed
To nurse for Jesus’ sake:

To whom–as if in hallowed air
Ye knelt before some awful shrine –
His innocent gestures wear
A meaning half divine:

By whom Love’s daily touch is seen
In strengthening form and freshening hue,
In the fixed brow serene,
The deep yet eager view. –

Who taught thy pure and even breath
To come and go with such sweet grace?
Whence thy reposing Faith,
Though in our frail embrace?

O tender gem, and full of Heaven!
Not in the twilight stars on high,
Not in moist flowers at even
See we our God so nigh.

Sweet one, make haste and know Him too,
Thine own adopting Father love,
That like thine earliest dew
Thy dying sweets may prove.