Captain Thin

For your reflection this Maundy Thursday:

To the Garden of Gethsemane

To the Garden of Gethsemane
Follow now the Lord and his disciples.
See him in the throes of agony
As the cords of death about him tangle.
Think upon this mystery:
The pain he feels, he feels for thee.

Here, as pow’rs of darkness him surround,
Hear his double prayer to God for mercy.
See him on his face fall to the ground,
Crying, “Take this cup of anguish from me!”
Watch his sweat drip down like blood,
First trickle of the coming flood.

Yet, though overwhelmed in his distress,
Still submits he to the purpose divine.
Hear him to his Father acquiesce,
Praying, “Let thy will be done and not mine.”
In response, God’s angel nears
And gives him strength to meet his fears.

Now the traitor springs and love profanes;
Comes by night to do his master’s mission.
This is now the hour when darkness reigns –
Now, when rightful king falls to sedition.
Hear the ancient serpent’s hiss!
Oh, see the strike beneath the kiss.

Maundy Thursday, 2011
Mathew Block

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I’ve posted the words to this one online before, but this is the first recording I’ve uploaded.

Jesus-right-hand-man

You can understand why the other disciples were angry. James and John had approached Jesus in secret and asked to be given authority above the rest. “Let one of us sit at your right,” they requested, “and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).

The other disciples, we read, were “indignant” when they heard about all this (Mark 10:41). It’s not surprising. “What’s so special about James and John?” you can imagine them asking. “Why should they sit at Jesus’ left and right, and not me?”

In their place, we might ask the same. No one enjoys feeling overlooked. We want to be recognized for our good work and to be rewarded accordingly. So when our acquaintances advance in life while we’re left behind, we feel under-appreciated. Cheated, even. “What’s so special about them?” we mutter to ourselves. “I should be the one climbing up the ladder.”

It’s been a perennial problem for humanity since Adam and Eve: we want all the power and prestige we can get. And if we can’t “be as gods,” as the serpent once promised, then we’ll settle for having a throne next to God’s. We’ll be His right-hand man, just so long as we’re ahead of everyone else. Like James and John, we want a position of power and glory…

So begins my most recent column for The Canadian Lutheran. It’s entitled “Jesus right-hand man.” James and John, of course, are told by Jesus that He cannot give them the places at His right and His left. So to whom did these places go? Find out here.

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John_Lydgate-web April 1 might be “April Fool’s Day,” but it is also (at least as of this year) “Whan That Aprille Day.” The name is drawn from the opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote / The drogthe of March hath perced to the roote …. Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”

Not only is the phrase the beginning of one of the most famous works of English fiction, it is also—as is obvious—an example of a now-obsolete form of the English language (specifically, the London dialect of Middle English). Whan That Aprille Day is meant to celebrate and encourage the study of such old languages. The author of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog explains it this way:

Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe thes wordes to us. To remynde folk to support the techinge of paleographye and of archival werke and eek, ywis, the techinge of thes oold langages. To remynde folk of the gret blisse and joye of research libraryes. For wythout al of thes, the past wolde have no wordes for us.

All wise words with which I agree. In honour of the day, I’d like to share a little bit of John Lydgate’s poetry with you all. Lydgate was a monk and poet who lived in the late 14th through early 15th centuries. He was a celebrated writer in his own time but is little remembered today. [By chance, The Guardian and BBC News have run stories about him in the last few days.]

I’m sharing with you a selection from his Legend of St. George. The tale, as we enter it, has advanced thus: A dragon has taken up residence near the Libyan city of Lysseene. In order to placate the monster, the people send out to it two sheep daily. But when the people begin to run out of sheep, the city is put in a difficult situation. How shall they feed the creature and prevent it from attacking? Eventually, they decide to draw lots to send their own people—“man or chylde”—out as food for the dragon. As Lydgate writes, “Allas, ellas, it was to gret pytee / To seen the sorowe that was in that citee.

One day the lot falls to the King’s daughter. And as “the statuit made noon excepcyoun / Of heghe ne lowe,” she prepares to leave upon her fatal journey. Grief consumes the city: “Hir fader wepte, hir moder, boothe tweyne, / And al the cytee in teers did so reyne.” But on the way to the dragon, she meets a knight, whom she warns to flee lest he also be devoured. But this is St. George, and Lydgate tells us he has been “sent frome the Lord as in hir diffence / Ageynst the dragoun to make resistence.” He is moved by the woman’s plight and decides to save her if he can.

Lydgate continues:

Hooly Seint George his hors smote on the syde
Whane he the dragoun sawe lyft up his hede,
And towardes him he proudely gan to ryde
Ful lyche a knight with outen fere or dreede;
Avysyly of witt he tooke goode heed,
With his spere sharp and kene egrounde
Thoroughe the body he gaf the feonde a wownde.

The cely mayde, knelyng on hir kne,
Unto hir goddes maked hir preyer,
And Saint George, whane he did it see,
To hir he sayde, with debonayre cheer,
“Ryse up anoon, myn owen doughter deer,
Take thy girdell, and make therof a bande,
And leed this dragoun boldly in thyn hande

“Into the cyté, lyche a conqueresse,
And the dragoun meekly shall obeye.”
And to the cytee anoon she gan hir dresse,
The ouggely monstre durst it not withseye,
And Saint George the mayden gan conveye,
That whane the kyng hade inspeccyoun,
With palme and banner he goothe processyoun,

Giving to him the laude of this victorye,
Which hathe theyre cytee delyverd out of dreed;
And Saint George, to encresce his glorye,
Pulled out a swerde and smote of his hed,
The people alwey taking ful goode heed,
How God this martyr list to magnefye,
And him to enhaunce thorughe his chivallerye.

Thanne he made the dragoun to be drawe,
With waynes and cartes fer out of the towne,
And after that he taught hem Crystes lawe,
By his doctryne and predicacyoun,
And frome th’errour by conversyoun,
He made hem tourne, the kyng and the cyté,
And of oon hert baptysed for to be.

As we see, then, St. George not only frees the people of Lysseene from their physical captivity, he further frees them from their spiritual captivity. The people hear the Good News of Christ and are converted from Paganism. Thus it is that the physical dragon’s downfall at St. George’s hands anticipates the city’s spiritual salvation from “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9).

To read the rest of Lydgate’s Legend of St. George (and for explanatory notes and glosses), visit TEAMS Middle English Texts.

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tolkien-beowulfNews last week that a translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien is forthcoming caught me by surprise. I had presumed that we had reached the end of Tolkien’s major works to be published posthumously by his son (following the 2013 publication of the incomplete Fall of Arthur and the 2009 publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún). Clearly I was wrong.

I can think of no better person to translate Beowulf than Tolkien. In fact, it’s thanks to him that most of us have even heard of the Anglo-Saxon poem. While many people think of Tolkien primarily as a fantasist, his day-job was actually as an English professor. And his major focus was in Old English—the language of Beowulf. But in Tolkien’s day, texts like Beowulf were not studied for their literary value. Instead, scholars merely attempted to extricate historical data from them, with philologists using them primarily as source material for the study of the evolution of the English language. The idea that Beowulf was literature was not a question even entertained.

This all changed in 1936 when Tolkien gave a lecture entitled“On the Monsters and the Critics.” “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy,” he argues in the opening of the essay, “far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.” So what Tolkien did in his own lecture came as a surprise: he “took for granted the poem’s integrity and distinction as a work of art and proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered,” as Seamus Heaney puts it in the introduction to his own translation of Beowulf. Tolkien’s lecture sounded as a clarion call to something new. Heaney again: “Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era—and new terms—of appreciation.”

Today scholars debate numerous things about Beowulf. They debate the date of authorship, whether the Christian elements are original (or tacked on later), and many more things besides. But they do not really question whether the poem is a work of art. That seems obvious now. But the fact that it seems obvious is thanks to Tolkien.

How fitting that the man who resurrected Beowulf in the imagination of our generation should at last have his own translation of the poem likewise resurrected. I for one couldn’t be more eager to read it.

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Donne's death shroudLast week a post of mine on the poets John Donne and George Herbert went up at First Things (entitled “In Praise of Dead Poets”). It begins by referencing a fascinating article by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes in The Guardian, where she attributes her conversion to Christianity to the poetry of Herbert. I use her experience as a launching pad for a discussion of my own university encounters with Donne—with a particular focus on one class in which we read his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

The book was interesting, to be sure, but I wondered what my classmates would make of it. This was not poetry, even if it was poetic. Would they even consider it literature? I confess that as I went to class that day, I did not expect much. I had convinced myself that discussion of the book would be, at best, limited.

I was shocked to discover the opposite. My classmates were engaged—extremely engaged—by this centuries-old reflection on sickness and death. And this wasn’t merely academic reflection on the book; students were sharing their own griefs and fears about death. This was personal confrontation with Donne’s subject, deeply felt.

This is truly the point of poetry like Donne’s and Herbert’s—not merely to appreciate it, but to converse with it. To be changed by it. Indeed, as I go on to explain, this was Herbert’s own hope for his poetry.

Though it is but a “poore paper,” in Herbert’s own assessment, he nevertheless hopes that God might work through it to transform its readers. “How happie were my part,” he writes, “If some kinde man would thrust his heart / Into these lines.” Herbert wants them to make the words their own, and to likewise offer their lives and wills to God—recognizing that he has already purchased them by his “death and bloud.”

I wind up as follows:

Threlfall-Holmes’ article in the Guardian suggests that Herbert’s poetry continues to do just that: introduce others to faith. And such writing serves not only as an introduction; it further offers life-long encouragement and comfort to the faithful. The lesson we learn from Herbert and Donne and countless others then is that the voices of the dead are not silent. No, they are powerful and effective even now.

May God continue so to use dead poets.

Check out the whole thing at First Things. And thanks to Gene Veith for sharing the article with his readers.

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George_HerbertOn this day—February 27—our Anglican friends remember the George Herbert. Let us join with them in doing so.

Prayer: O Lord, we remember with thanks this day your servant George Herbert, priest and poet. May his writings, which speak beautifully and deeply of Your grace, be for us a source of comfort, and a strengthening of faith also for all who believe the Gospel. In the name of Jesus Christ—Herbert’s Lord and our Lord—we pray. Amen.

THE AGONIE

     Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, of kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
     But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove,
Yet few there are that found them; Sinne and Love.

     Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
     His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

     Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
     If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

- George Herbert

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luther-face-webMy latest at First Things went up a few days ago (February 18), to coincide with the anniversary of Luther’s death. Since then, it’s been picked up by Real Clear Religion and the Gospel Coalition, among other sites.

On this day in 1546, Martin Luther fell asleep in the Lord. Lutherans therefore recognize him this day and thank God for him. But let’s be honest: Luther wasn’t always a very nice man.

So begins the article. I go on to discuss Luther’s failings (they are many) before bringing us back to the real reason we remember him:

“This truly is why we remember Luther: not because he was always nice, not because he was always good, and certainly not because he was always right. He wasn’t. Instead, we remember Luther because he directed attention always away from himself to Christ. It is to Christ we look for salvation, not our own holiness.”

Read the whole thing at “Standing with Martin Luther: Remembering a sinful saint.”

(The title of this post is taken from Anthony Sacramone’s tweeted description of my article).

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