27 December 2022

Praying at Christmas through poems
and with USPG: 27 December 2022

The Eagle Lectern, a symbol of Saint John the Divine, in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Today is the Feast Day of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle, also known as Saint John the Divine.

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

In art, Saint John the Divine, or Saint the Evangelist, is often depicted as an eagle, symbolising the poetic heights to which he rises in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel, and to signify the majesty and divine inspiration in this Gospel. And there are poetic passages throughout the Johannine writings – the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine Letters and the Book of Revelation – though these are often missed by readers when they are presented as prose narrative in translations.

The Gospel reading for the Eucharist today [27 December 2022], the Feast-Day of Saint John the Evangelist, or Saint John the Divine, is John 21:19b-25:

19b After this he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Follow me.’

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23 So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Christina Rossetti, author of two poems about Saint John the Divine, was the model for the Virgin Mary in the painting ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’ (The Annunciation), 1849-1850, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Two poems by Christina Rossetti

For my choice of Christmas poems this morning, I have chosen two poems written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) celebrating Saint John the Divine or Saint John the Evangelist: ‘Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,’ written before 1893; and the shorter ‘Beloved, Let Us Love One Another,’ written before 1886.

However, like so many other poems she wrote, they were not published until ten years after her death, in the 1904 collection, The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti.

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending by Christina Rossetti

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,
Hell cannot bind light from descending,
Death cannot finish life never ending.
Eagle and sun gaze at each other,
Eagle at sun, brother at Brother,
Loving in peace and joy one another.

O St. John, with chains for thy wages,
Strong thy rock where the storm-blast rages,
Rock of refuge, the Rock of Ages.
Rome hath passed with her awful voice,
Earth is passing with all her joys,
Heaven shall pass away with a noise.

So from us all follies that please us,
So from us all falsehoods that ease us,–
Only all saints abide with their Jesus.
Jesus, in love looking down hither,
Jesus, by love draw us up thither,
That we in Thee may abide together.

‘Beloved, let us love one another’ by Christina Rossetti

‘Beloved, let us love one another,’ says St. John,
Eagle of eagles calling from above:
Words of strong nourishment for life to feed upon,
‘Beloved, let us love.’
Voice of an eagle, yea, Voice of the Dove:
If we may love, winter is past and gone;
Publish we, praise we, for lo it is enough.
More sunny than sunshine that ever yet shone,
Sweetener of the bitter, smoother of the rough,
Highest lesson of all lessons for all to con,
‘Beloved, let us love.’

The eagle lectern in the Chapel of Saint John’s College, Oxford, was carved by John Snetzler in 1773 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the USPG Christmas Appeal: Journey to Freedom. The Journey to Freedom campaign supports the anti-human trafficking programme of the Diocese of Durgapur in North India.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for men, women and children who are driven by poverty to leave home and seek work. May they be kept safe from harm along the way.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint John the Evangelist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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