Spring comes late and slow to the Berkshires

We had a tough winter here in the Berkshire Hills, tons of snow and only now in May are we enjoying a brief and somewhat damp and cool Spring.  Nonetheless, it is beautiful.  I heard this poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Writer’s Almanac today.  It is one of my (many) favorites of his:

Spring

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

(Backyard photos by R. L. Floyd)

“The Stones Would Cry Out!” Palm Sunday Ruminations on the Cradle and the Cross

 

At which end of Jesus’ life should we look for the reason we call him “Lord and Savior?” My friends in the Mercersburg Society put heavy stress on the Incarnation.  Others, such as P. T. Forsyth, insist that we only can understand the Incarnation backwards in time, from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection. (See, for example, on this point, a great quote from Forsyth here.)

From my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, one of the early and still best narrative theologians, I have learned to be careful not to take any episode of the story to represent the whole.

But I must confess I do agree here with Forsyth, though he has sometimes been criticized as being so focused on the cross that he neglects other parts of Jesus’ life and work.

So what is the relationship between the cradle and the cross?  If one were to only read Marks’s Gospel, the answer is simple, since he has no infancy narratives at all and begins with Jesus’s adutlt ministry.

But for many of us, this is the year of Luke in our lectionaries, and it is well to remember that of all the Evangelists, it is Luke who includes the most infancy material: “the Annunciation,” “the Visitation,”  shepherds and heavenly choirs, etc.  It is no accident we all read Luke at our services on Christmas Eve.  If we read Mark, we’d get home much earlier.

I heard somewhere, I can’t recall where, that “the wood of the cradle is the same wood as the wood of the cross.”  There is much theological truth in that.

So once again I turn to a poet to express deep truths that may elude the prose of the theologians.

Richard Wilbur (1921-) is one of my favorite poets (I have many), and although I have never met him, is my Berkshire County neighbor and a sometimes worshipper at the congregation where I now mostly worship.

A two time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Laureate, Wilbur has made a startling but brilliant connection between Christ’s Incarnation and Cross in his poem A Christmas Hymn.

It is often sung to one of several musical settings at Christmas, but the refrain is right from Luke’s Palm Sunday story, and the concluding verse reminds us of the reason for Christ’s vocation that led to Good Friday.  Such a good reminder to keep the whole arc of the story in view when looking at the any of the parts:

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

(A Christmas Hymnby Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems, 1988, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.)

The Preacher’s Burden: “Sunday’s Hour” by Arnold Kenseth

 

Arnold Kenseth wrote some wonderful poetry, but he never lost touch with the challenges of having to stand up on your hind legs each Sunday morning and try to make words become the Word for the people.  Here he names the impossibility of such a task, a task he and all preachers must nonetheless take up each week, because that is what God has called us to do. This is one of my favorites of his:

 

 

 

SUNDAY’S HOUR


Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises. 
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half 
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home 
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.

For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more 
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here 
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple 
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now, 
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.

(Arnold Kenseth, From Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002.  Photo by Wilson Poole

A Poem for Late Winter and Lent by Arnold Kenseth

 

My friend the late Arnold Kenseth was a Congregational minister and a first-rate New England poet with an eye for God’s presence in the world all around him.

It’s late winter here in the Berkshires (he lived about forty miles from here in S. Amherst).  I matched up his poem with a photo I shot yesterday of a still frozen lake while snowshoeing on the Taconic Crest Trail on the Massachusetts/ New York border.

I thought Arnold’s poem has a Lenten ring to it.

A COLLECT FOR COMPASSION

There in the rudest tree
Where winter grips and rocks
The black indefinite cold,
Comes the small chickadee,
And like my soul, pipes
Anxious prayer, implores
An opening of doors,
Some crust and surety.
My hand, give him his bread!
May whirlwind God pause
From His storms and come
To me with Cup and Crumb.
Arnold Kenseth (The Ritual Year, 1993)

(Photo: R. L. Floyd,  Frozen Lake,  March 8, 2010)

“On the Death of Karl Barth” by Jack Clemo

 

December 10, 1968 was a day of loss for the church of Jesus Christ, as two of her intellectual giants, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, died within hours of each other.

On this eve of the forty-first anniversary of their deaths I offer this poem by the late British writer and poet Jack Clemo (1916-1994). Clemo, who was from Cornwall, became deaf as a young man and blind around the age of forty. His poem is entitled:

 “On the Death of Karl Barth”

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk—
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat;
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.
Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who plowed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallow, all projections of the divine.

(From The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Edited by Donald Davie, 1988, p 290-291)

(Portrait of Jack Clemo by Betty Penver)

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet of A Vast Incarnation 2

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Back in October I posted one of my favorite poems by British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).  Here is another:

The Windover
To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.