Poetry

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus, Redux

Posted on Updated on

bethke

This coming Sunday, Jan. 12, will be the two year anniversary of the post that has inexplicably (to me) probably been the most-read thing I’ve ever written. It’s always somewhat odd to me to note the things that get the most hits. They’re almost invariably stuff that’s more off-the-cuff than much-deliberated (like this silly post of coffee and theology jokes). (Kind of depressing, really.)

One thing I’ve noted from the comments on the post is that, at the time, many people chided my criticisms since I was picking on some “kid” who was just expressing himself, while I insisted that he was acting as a professional and making a contribution to public discourse that was therefore subject to critique.

Since then, that “kid” has of course made quite the career from the video in question and now has a book entitled JESUS > RELIGION. It’s still selling quite well on Amazon, with 308 reviews and counting, and is a NYT bestseller. His Facebook page currently has over 231,000 “likes.”

Now, one might argue that it was this video that propelled him from “amateur” to “professional” status, and it certainly did make him a celebrity. But as I mentioned at the time, the video was quite professionally produced, and he had already been soliciting speaking engagements for some time before the video came out. So he was clearly a professional, just not quite yet a very successful one.

But now he has joined the pantheon of Evangelical pop spirituality stars. I wish him well. I do not think that that kind of spirituality will long endure, however, as Evangelicalism now seems to be engaged in a fairly serious self-critique which is coming to look at the sort of religion this gentleman pushes as rather shallow and even heretical.

I actually ended up doing a couple of follow-up posts to explore some further issues related to the original. Here are all the posts in the series:

A lot of this kind of thing I would probably today post on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, but the site didn’t exist yet in January 2012. The popularity of the original post and its follow-ups are actually part of what led me to start the O&H site in the summer of 2012.

Thanks to all my readers. I appreciate whatever attention you can lend.

Canticle for the Meeting of our Lord

Posted on

The Presentation in the Temple, Meister des Marienlebens, ca. 1460-75

Canticle for the Meeting of Our Lord

Long years ago I heard the Voice of God—
foreshadowing to me the news of Christ,
that death I would not see ’til I had seen
th’awaited coming of the Son of Man.
“Behold, the Virgin shall conceive,” I read,
Isaiah’s vision did foretell the One
to bring salvation to old Israel,
His flesh and blood to feed the race of man.
And so I prayed, my face upon the ground,
to see the Son of God, the great I AM,
the icon of the mighty Father God,
incarnate for us sons of Israel.
Both night and light, at every hour and time,
with tears I prayed: O Lord, O Lord! How long?
A Light we need, for revelation true,
the glory of Thy people Israel.

Then came the day, within the Temple’s gates,
wherein we saw the coming of the Lord—
a host of angels gathered ’round, I felt,
as two from Galilee did enter in:
The good old man, the righteous Joseph there,
and at his side a young and spotless Maid;
she held within her arms a newborn Child,
Who’d breathed our earthly air but forty days.
They brought with them the sacrifice, two birds,
according to the Law of Moses’ words.

And then, she brought to me the Child—my God
was laid so tenderly within my arms,
His infant breath upon my hands I felt,
His holy breath upon my sinful hands.
I stood, Creator held by creature’s arms,
the Living Word and Son of Most High God
now meets the tired and war-worn Israel,
the faithless bride has now beheld her groom.
“O Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant part
in peace, according to Thy word of truth:
Behold! my eyes have seen salvation’s birth,
which Thou prepared before the face of all,
the Light we need, for revelation true,
the glory of Thy people Israel.”

Then Joseph and the Virgin stood amazed,
to hear such truths as these which God had shown
to me so many long, long years before.
I gave to them the blessing of the Lord,
the Lord Who slept there as an infant Child,
then said to them, “Behold, O Virgin pure,
this Child will be the rise and fall of men
of Israel, a sign which shall be mocked;
And, lo, a sword will pierce thy soul as well,
the thoughts of many men will be revealed.”
Then prophetess, the righteous Anna, came,
and she rejoiced as well to see His day,
thanksgiving sang unto the Lord Most High,
and preached of the Redeemer’s blessed birth.

The Virgin and the good old man returned
to Galilee, performing all the things
required by Moses’ ancient Jewish Law.
The Child, He grew, His spirit strong and good,
with wisdom filled and filled with grace;
He bore mankind’s salvation on His back,
our essence taken to Himself, while yet
retaining without change His place as God.
Our God became a man that we might live
and grow as gods, to fullness of the Christ.

2004

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus

Posted on Updated on

The above video by Jefferson Bethke has been making the rounds lately via various bits of social media. A few people have sent it to me to ask what I think. This touches on a lot of themes that I’ve written on before, and while it doesn’t particularly make any new theological claims—it’s really just a sort of standard, monergistic, anti-ecclesial, sentimentalist Evangelical Protestantism—for whatever reason (perhaps the emotionally moving music in the background), it seems to be getting some attention.

Anyway, the Bethke text is below in italics, and my responses are in standard typeface. (Update: I’ve updated the quoted text verbatim with his official transcription, which is more accurate than the one I found earlier via Google.)

What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?

Well, I’d ask what exactly you mean by “religion.” After all, that word, which you use as if it were some monolithic institution or set of behaviors or philosophy, can refer to everything from exactly what you’re doing in this video to when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover to the human sacrifice of the Thuggee cult in India to the fivefold kneeling in prayer of the Muslim. There really is no such thing as “religion” in any sense that it could be criticized with any detail. There are religions, but there isn’t “religion,” not really.

No doubt you just mean Jesus came to abolish bad religions. But you didn’t say that.

What’s worst about this, though, is that religion is actually a rather great word, once you look inside it. It’s from Latin, and (at least in its etymological parts) it literally (and yes, I mean literally literally) means “reconnection” (re + ligio). Is that what you mean Jesus came to abolish? I had gotten the impression that reconnection was actually the purpose of His coming.

Of course you probably didn’t mean that. But you should find out what the words you use mean before you use them, even if you’re not going to dive into etymology and plan merely to use common dicionary definitions.

What if I told you, getting you to vote republican, really wasn’t his mission?

He didn’t seem to have much to say about voting in general, actually. I’ve met Democrats who insist to me that a true Christian can only vote Democrat, mapping Jesus’ commands to love with compassion onto a progressivist social agenda. I’m not really sure who you’re responding to here, but I don’t think there’s really any significant movement of Christians who actually believe that “vot[ing] Republican really [was] his mission.” (Do you?)

Because republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,
And just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision.

Well, the irony here is that you later write “Religion makes you blind.” Where’s your vision coming from? You question the authority of the “you” who “call[s] some people blind,” but you haven’t established your own. You yourself call some people blind later on (“Religion” makes you that way, it seems), but from what source comes your vision?

(But it definitely seems you have a problem with Republicans.)

If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?

I have to assume that you’re just ignorant here. Any real examination of the realities of military history will reveal that religion is almost never the actual impetus for armed conflict. Indeed, even the “Wars of Religion” in Europe frequently saw alliances between various factions who had different religious allegiances, often acting as co-belligerents against co-religionists. (For more on this, I highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which is a very badly titled book about doing an honest examination of the evidence of the history of Christianity, especially in the West. It’s a good book, and it’s a slam-dunk against the old urban legends about “religion” being anti-science, starting wars, pursuing witch-hunts, etc.)

Of course, you put that in the present tense, so I have to ask: Can you name even one currently ongoing war that is started by religion?

Also, I know you don’t mean to suggest this, but one could also ask why, if atheism is so great, explicitly atheist regimes succeeded in slaughtering more people (both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of thoroughness) in the 20th century than in the entire rest of human history combined. (This point is not really about atheism, of course, but rather to point out the error in using a body count as a measure of a philosophy.)

Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?

Did you know that the largest charity in the US is Lutheran? Did you know that Americans are the most charitable country on earth? Did you know that people who attend religious services regularly are the most likely to be charitable givers?

Did you know that “religion” essentially invented the ideas of feeding the poor, building free hospitals, and has spent untold amounts of money sending people to the ends of the earth precisely to care for the suffering?

Ever hear of Mother Teresa? Rumor has it she belonged to a big ol’ religion.

Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced
Yet God in the Old Testament actually calls the religious people whores

Again, which “religion” is this? Divorce is a sin, yes, but God loves all sinners. As for your claim about the Old Testament, I’ll have to see a citation. (Was this the “religion” that God Himself instituted via Abraham and Moses?)

Religion preaches grace, but another thing they practice,
Tend to ridicule Gods people, they did it to John the Baptist,

Again, the moving target of “religion” can be pinned with any malefaction, I suppose.

Did you know John the Baptist used to baptize people as part of a Jewish tradition of a ritual washing for the repentance of sins? That sounds suspiciously like “religion” to me.

Cant fix their problems, so they try to mask it,
Not realizing that’s just like sprayin perfume on a casket
Because the problem with religion is that it never gets to the core,
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.
Let’s dress up the outside, make things look nice and neat,
Its funny that’s what they do to mummies, while the corpse rots underneath,

Okay, I get what you’re referring to here, and of course it’s the whitewashed tombs that Christ uses to characterize the scribes and Pharisees of His day. But even while He has such strong words for them, He doesn’t “abolish” their position. Instead, He actually says “whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” His problem with them is their hypocrisy, not their “religion.”

Your basic error here is that you’ve identified hypocrisy with “religion,” but Jesus Himself actually criticized the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees while explicitly endorsing their religion, which is kind of a problem for your whole thesis.

Now I ain’t judging…

Really?

…I’m just saying be careful of putting on a fake look,
Because there’s a problem if people only know that you’re a Christian by that little section on your facebook

Hey, I agree.

In every other aspect of life you know that logics unworthy

I honestly have no idea what this means.

(Update: Someone sent me a better transcription for this line (I Googled for the one I originally used; I didn’t transcribe it myself), but my comment above was based on an earlier version I found which read In every other aspect of life you know that logics are worthy.

I must admit now that I’m a little disappointed he didn’t actually write “that logics are worthy,” because logics has a certain droll quality to it. He meant logic’s, of course, though his official transcript left out that apostrophe.

His meaning is clearer in his official version, though I do wish he’d’ve used an apostrophe.)

Its like saying you play for the lakers just because you bought a jersey

Again, I agree. Hypocrisy is bad.

But I guess you like the Lakers.

But see I played this game too; no one seemed to be on to me,
I was acting like church kid, while addicted to pornography.
I’d go to church on Sunday, but on saturday getting faded,
Acting as if I was simply created to have sex and get wasted.
Spend my whole life putting on this façade of neatness,

You know what? This is the predicament of almost every Christian I’ve ever known. Perhaps their sins aren’t pornography (though that is unfortunately becoming frighteningly common), drugs (which is what I assume “getting faded” means) and sex and getting wasted (wait… that’s drugs twice!), but every single Christian is a sinner, and indeed just about every member of every religion would probably admit that he fails to live up to his religion’s moral code in some manner or other.

The problem lies not in the sin but rather in hypocrisy (which is claiming to believe something you actually don’t, not merely failing to live up to your beliefs), in pretense.

You say below that the church is a “hospital for the broken,” but you seem to believe that the broken are all just a bunch of fakes who have built a “façade of neatness.”

But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness.
If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
Cuz its not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken

I absolutely agree. And that’s what the true Christian religion actually is. The fact that you’ve apparently been a hypocrite and that you probably have been burned or offended by hypocrites doesn’t mean that there really is actually no true religion.

I no longer have to hide my failures I don’t have to hide my sin,
Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.

Actually, it depends on you, too. If you don’t cooperate, then it won’t do anything for you at all.

because when I was Gods enemy and certainly not a fan,
God looked down on me and said, “I want that man!”
Which is so different from religious people, and why Jesus called em fools

There you go again. Jesus never said any such thing. Indeed, He seemed especially intent on establishing His Church, which is an actual community, a body—in your words, a “hospital for the broken” (that image comes from “religion,” by the way).

Don’t you see hes so much better than just following some rules?

Who actually claims that religion is about “just following some rules”? Yes, there are “rules” in the sense that there are moral standards and traditional ways of doing things, but that’s because, if you’re going to have a functioning hospital for the broken, there will need to be ways of keeping the peaceful atmosphere, passing on the wisdom of the Great Physician, and also in informing the patients what kinds of behavior will help in their healing and what kinds are going to make them sicker.

Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the bible, and I believe in sin

These are all things that “religion” has revealed, I’m afraid.

But my question, is if Jesus were here today, would your church let Him in?

Well, since you asked about my church… He comes to my church every day, and He actually is present on my altar at least once a week, and we not only let Him into the church, but we let Him into our actual bodies.

Remember He was called a drunkard and a glutton by “religious men”
The Son of God not supported self-righteousness, not now, not then.

But He was also called “my Lord and my God,” and “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” and “Savior” by “religious men.” He came precisely to give righteousness to those who would participate in it. Being “religious” does not make someone “self-righteous.”

Now back to the topic, one thing I think is vital to mention,
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums,
One is the work of God one is a man made invention,
One is the cure and one is the infection.

Actually, I thought sin was the infection. When Adam and Eve infected the whole human race with what they did, was their error the founding of “religion”? I seem to have missed that part.

Because Religion says do, Jesus says done.
Religion says slave, Jesus says son,

There’s a whole lot of “do” from the mouths of Jesus and His chosen Apostles in the New Testament. As for the “done,” yes, His work is done, but even the Apostle Paul had the impression that he needed to keep working on “laying hold” of what Jesus had done for him.

Religion puts you in shackles but Jesus sets you free.
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see.
This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans,

Well, like someone said, “just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision..” It seems to me that you’ve conflated sin with “religion” and hypocrisy. They’re really not the same thing. Religion is many things, while hypocrisy is a particular type of sin. The bondage and blindness that Jesus and His Apostles preached about are slavery to sin and the blindness of hypocrisy, not “religion.”

Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.
Which is why salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,
Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.

“Religion” is a lot of different things. I agree that it is God Who has come to reconnect (religio) with man, but He also created man to have a longing for God. What you’re revealing here actually has a technical theological name, and it’s the heresy of monergism, the idea that the whole of salvation is exclusively the act of God. You’re right that salvation isn’t based on your merits, but you’re wrong that Christianity isn’t about man searching for God. It’s both about God Who has come to be with man (“searching” seems to suggest that He doesn’t know where man is) and about man’s response to his desire for the divine.

Because he took the crown of thorns, and blood that dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, that’s why we call it grace.

That’s not why we call it “grace.” Grace (in Greek, charis) actually refers to a “gift,” not to the substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion.

While being murdered he yelled “father forgive them, they know not what they do”,

I missed the part where it said He “yelled.”

Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb,

Sure, though the “murdered” and “dangling” language strongly suggest to me that He was somehow helpless. But He wasn’t.

Which is why im kneeling at the cross now saying come on there’s room

Really? You know what they call it when people pray together in front of a theological image like a cross, right? I’ll give you a clue: It starts with an R and ends with -eligion.

So know I hate religion, in fact I literally resent it,
Because when Jesus cried It is finished, I believe He meant it.

Hatred and resentment (and I really mean this, too) are very dangerous places from which to build a theology. I also believe that Jesus meant it when He said “It is finished” (literally, “the purpose is fulfilled” or “it is consummated,” depending on whether you’re reading Greek or Latin), but there’s absolutely no indication anywhere in His words, the words of His Apostles, or the words of those who received the Apostles’ teaching (the Church) that what was “finished” is “religion.”

…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18).

If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:26-27)

It’s worth noting that I touched on some of these same themes in this March 2011 post: “Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God.

It’s probably even more worth noting that Fr. John Romanides wrote extensively on what he calls “The Cure of the Neurobiological Sickness of Religion,” and perhaps that’s what Bethke is attempting to get at, but his use of religion is so irresponsibly vague that I honestly don’t think there’s any real comparison between Bethke’s poem and what Romanides is addressing.

Update: For some reason unbeknownst to me, this post is getting a lot more attention than most of my posts do, and I know that there are a lot of folks who are not members of the Orthodox Church who are visiting.

To all of my non-Orthodox visitors, welcome! This site is written by a priest/presbyter/pastor of the Orthodox Christian Church, the oldest of all Christian churches, to which all Christians can ultimately trace their roots. Want to know more? Start here.

Update: Here are some other critiques of this, representing various traditions, which you might also find interesting:

Feel free to comment with others, if you find them.

Update: Because of the now thousands of hits that this post has quite unexpectedly received, it should be noted that I will not be publishing any more comments whose contents could be summarized as “How dare you criticize this nice young man, you big meanie!” or “Poetry which is rife with theological words and theological statements should not be treated as having anything to do with theology!” or “Everyone has his own interpretation, and how dare you put a different one forward than this nice young man!” (On that last point especially, the phrase you’re searching for is sola scriptura, and we Orthodox types don’t believe in it one bit. We’re also not relativists, so, yes, I do think that some theology is just plain wrong.)

Carry on.

Update: I suppose I should also mention that I’m not going to be publishing the many (more) comments whose purpose seems to be to convince me of Evangelical Protestant theology (especially soteriology, i.e., the theology of salvation). That is the theology I was raised with, so I am indeed familiar with it, and I explicitly left it behind in becoming an Orthodox Christian.

If you’re interested in my more detailed critique of that theology (which this post doesn’t include), I strongly recommend checking out my book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy or the podcast of the same name (which has much of the same material, though a bit less).

Final Update: I’ve decided to close comments on this post. Details are here.

See also this post on why, curiously enough, I am not in fact arguing that one is saved by “rules” and “religion,” etc.

bethke

A Song for Simeon

Posted on

An Armenian icon of the Meeting of Christ in the Temple
    A Song for Simeon

    Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
    The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
    The stubborn season has made stand.
    My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
    Like a feather on the back of my hand.
    Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
    Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

    Grant us thy peace.
    I have walked many years in this city,
    Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
    Have taken and given honour and ease.
    There went never any rejected from my door.
    Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
    When the time of sorrow is come ?
    They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
    Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

    Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
    Grant us thy peace.
    Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
    Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
    Now at this birth season of decease,
    Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
    Grant Israel’s consolation
    To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

    According to thy word,
    They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
    With glory and derision,
    Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
    Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
    Not for me the ultimate vision.
    Grant me thy peace.
    (And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
    Thine also).
    I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
    I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
    Let thy servant depart,
    Having seen thy salvation.

    T.S. Eliot

Canticle for the Meeting of our Lord

Posted on

Presentation in the Temple by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1342
    Canticle for the Meeting of Our Lord

    Long years ago I heard the Voice of God—
    foreshadowing to me the news of Christ,
    that death I would not see ’til I had seen
    th’awaited coming of the Son of Man.
    “Behold, the Virgin shall conceive,” I read,
    Isaiah’s vision did foretell the One
    to bring salvation to old Israel,
    His flesh and blood to feed the race of man.
    And so I prayed, my face upon the ground,
    to see the Son of God, the great I AM,
    the icon of the mighty Father God,
    incarnate for us sons of Israel.
    Both night and light, at every hour and time,
    with tears I prayed: O Lord, O Lord! How long?
    A Light we need, for revelation true,
    the glory of Thy people Israel.

    Then came the day, within the Temple’s gates,
    wherein we saw the coming of the Lord—
    a host of angels gathered ’round, I felt,
    as two from Galilee did enter in:
    The good old man, the righteous Joseph there,
    and at his side a young and spotless Maid;
    she held within her arms a newborn Child,
    Who’d breathed our earthly air but forty days.
    They brought with them the sacrifice, two birds,
    according to the Law of Moses’ words.

    And then, she brought to me the Child—my God
    was laid so tenderly within my arms,
    His infant breath upon my hands I felt,
    His holy breath upon my sinful hands.
    I stood, Creator held by creature’s arms,
    the Living Word and Son of Most High God
    now meets the tired and war-worn Israel,
    the faithless bride has now beheld her groom.
    “O Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant part
    in peace, according to Thy word of truth:
    Behold! my eyes have seen salvation’s birth,
    which Thou prepared before the face of all,
    the Light we need, for revelation true,
    the glory of Thy people Israel.”

    Then Joseph and the Virgin stood amazed,
    to hear such truths as these which God had shown
    to me so many long, long years before.
    I gave to them the blessing of the Lord,
    the Lord Who slept there as an infant Child,
    then said to them, “Behold, O Virgin pure,
    this Child will be the rise and fall of men
    of Israel, a sign which shall be mocked;
    And, lo, a sword will pierce thy soul as well,
    the thoughts of many men will be revealed.”
    Then prophetess, the righteous Anna, came,
    and she rejoiced as well to see His day,
    thanksgiving sang unto the Lord Most High,
    and preached of the Redeemer’s blessed birth.

    The Virgin and the good old man returned
    to Galilee, performing all the things
    required by Moses’ ancient Jewish Law.
    The Child, He grew, His spirit strong and good,
    with wisdom filled and filled with grace;
    He bore mankind’s salvation on His back,
    our essence taken to Himself, while yet
    retaining without change His place as God.
    Our God became a man that we might live
    and grow as gods, to fullness of the Christ.

For the Solstice

Posted on

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

—T. S. Eliot, from East Coker

Canticle for the Meeting of our Lord

Posted on

Detail, Giovanni Bellini, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, (c. 1470), Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice
    Canticle for the Meeting of Our Lord

    Long years ago I heard the Voice of God—
    foreshadowing to me the news of Christ,
    that death I would not see ’til I had seen
    th’awaited coming of the Son of Man.
    “Behold, the Virgin shall conceive,” I read,
    Isaiah’s vision did foretell the One
    to bring salvation to old Israel,
    His flesh and blood to feed the race of man.
    And so I prayed, my face upon the ground,
    to see the Son of God, the great I AM,
    the icon of the mighty Father God,
    incarnate for us sons of Israel.
    Both night and light, at every hour and time,
    with tears I prayed: O Lord, O Lord! How long?
    A Light we need, for revelation true,
    the glory of Thy people Israel.

    Then came the day, within the Temple’s gates,
    wherein we saw the coming of the Lord—
    a host of angels gathered ’round, I felt,
    as two from Galilee did enter in:
    The good old man, the righteous Joseph there,
    and at his side a young and spotless Maid;
    she held within her arms a newborn Child,
    Who’d breathed our earthly air but forty days.
    They brought with them the sacrifice, two birds,
    according to the Law of Moses’ words.

    And then, she brought to me the Child—my God
    was laid so tenderly within my arms,
    His infant breath upon my hands I felt,
    His holy breath upon my sinful hands.
    I stood, Creator held by creature’s arms,
    the Living Word and Son of Most High God
    now meets the tired and war-worn Israel,
    the faithless bride has now beheld her groom.
    “O Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant part
    in peace, according to Thy word of truth:
    Behold! my eyes have seen salvation’s birth,
    which Thou prepared before the face of all,
    the Light we need, for revelation true,
    the glory of Thy people Israel.”

    Then Joseph and the Virgin stood amazed,
    to hear such truths as these which God had shown
    to me so many long, long years before.
    I gave to them the blessing of the Lord,
    the Lord Who slept there as an infant Child,
    then said to them, “Behold, O Virgin pure,
    this Child will be the rise and fall of men
    of Israel, a sign which shall be mocked;
    And, lo, a sword will pierce thy soul as well,
    the thoughts of many men will be revealed.”
    Then prophetess, the righteous Anna, came,
    and she rejoiced as well to see His day,
    thanksgiving sang unto the Lord Most High,
    and preached of the Redeemer’s blessed birth.

    The Virgin and the good old man returned
    to Galilee, performing all the things
    required by Moses’ ancient Jewish Law.
    The Child, He grew, His spirit strong and good,
    with wisdom filled and filled with grace;
    He bore mankind’s salvation on His back,
    our essence taken to Himself, while yet
    retaining without change His place as God.
    Our God became a man that we might live
    and grow as gods, to fullness of the Christ.

Sweet Afton

Posted on Updated on

River Afton, Ayrshire, Scotland

Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Thou stockdove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing thy screaming forbear,
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering Fair.

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark’d with the courses of clear, winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev’ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides;
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets, she stems thy clear wave.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Robert Burns, 1791

I’m not entirely sure why, but this poem’s been on my mind ever since my son Elias was born on Sunday. I must admit to first being introduced to it by Nickel Creek, who included a musical version of it on their debut album, framed by a melody which is so clear and appropriate that one feels that it could not have had any author.

There is something about the anchoring of and in place that comes forward at the birth of a child, particularly (if I may) a son. Since the days of Adam, men have as part of their vocation on this earth to provide stability, unity and name. (And women provide civilization and a motivation for men to undertake their calling.)

Both of my children have so far been born in Pennsylvania, while both their parents are native Virginians. This seems right to me, in a way I cannot quite explain but which is particularly informed by the reality that, in my own immediate family, between five members are five native states. That’s just how things turned out for us, but it’s not something I’d like to perpetuate.

With a new man comes a new grounding in the ecology (per Prof. Alfred Siewers, “the story of home”), a new generation to be ordered among the fathers and grandfathers. Here in 21st century America, the fathers and grandfathers rarely call the same place home.

My prayer is that my generation may be among the last to be so scattered across this world. It seems to me that the Incarnation almost expects it.