Friday, April 10, 2020

Three on Good Friday—National Poetry Month 2020

Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, a Medieval illustration from the 12th century Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg.
Good Friday is the most somber day of the Christian liturgical calendar it is the bleak but necessary set up to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of Christ.  It seems not to have been central to worship in the earliest centuries of the Church.  It took generations for the central symbol of the day—the cross and later the crucifix with the hanging body of Jesus—to replace the fish as the universal icon of Christianity.  
By the early Medieval period art depicting the crucifixion displayed the shift to concentrating in often ghastly detail the suffering of Jesus paying with his pain for the sins of humanity.  Penitent Christians were expected to feel the prick of the thorns on Christ’s brow, the lashes, the weight of the burden of his own instrument of doom, the terrible thirst, the driven spikes through his flesh, the pierce of the Centurion’s lance, and the long agonizing death of suffocation.
No wonder that many pagan peoples regarded Christianity as a death cult
Today we will feature three contemplations on Good Friday by observant and orthodox Christians.
This excerpt from The Dream of the Rood comes from the 8th Century Anglo-Saxon and is the earliest known example of Christian poetry in Old English.  The verse spoken in the voice of the tree from which the Cross was made shows and interesting blend of the pagan beliefs of both the Germanic tribes and Celtic Druids which made trees central to their worship with Christianity.
A modern illustration of The Dream of the Rood byAngela Lemaire.

From the The Dream of the Rood
The Rood (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 honor 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.”

—Translated by Richard Hammer

Ecce Ancilla Domini (Behold the handmaid of the Lord.)  Dante Gabriel Rossetti used his sister, Christina, as Mary and his brother William Michael as the Archangel Gabriel.
Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894, was a prolific English poet and Anglo-Catholic mystic.  She was the daughter of Italian poet and political refugee Gabriele Rossetti  and sister of ‎ Pre-Raphaelite painter  Dante Gabriel Rossetti who often used her as a model.

Good Friday
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Christina  Rossetti

John Masefield, long-time Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.

John Masefield, 1878-1967 was an English poet and writer, and the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death. Among his best known works were the children’s novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, and the poems The Everlasting Mercy and Sea-Fever.  In the United States he is often misidentified and his poems attributed to John Mansfield.

From The Everlasting Mercy

O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.

             —John Masefield

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