23 April 2011

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (2)

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Andrea Mantegna, 1460, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 2:
Matthew 27: 3-10.

Reflection 2: TS Eliot, A Song for Simeon (1928).

Our second painting this evening is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), a North Italian Renaissance painter, a student of Roman archaeology, and the son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini. The painting, painted by Mantegna in 1460, in tempera on wood, is 67 x 86 cm, and is now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

Mantegna was born near Padua, but later worked in Verona, Mantua and Rome, and perhaps in Venice and Florence too. He died in Mantua in 1506. Like other artists of the time, Mantegna experimented with perspective. For example, he lowered his horizons to create a sense of greater monumentality. His flinty, metallic landscapes and his somewhat stony figures show an almost sculptural approach to painting.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1490)

His The Dead Christ, painted thirty years after his Presentation, in 1490, and now in Milan, may have later influenced Hans Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which we have been looking at this evening, and shocked those who first saw it because of its brutal realism, achieved by foreshortening.

The subject of this earlier painting, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is the story found in Luke 2: 22-40, where Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth to dedicate him to God, according to the religious laws and traditions of the day.

As they brought the Christ Child to the Temple, they met Simeon, who had been promised “he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord” (Luke 2: 26). In the Anglican tradition, we continue to use Simeon’s prayer in Evening Prayer and Choral Evensong as the Canticle Nunc Dimittis.

In his prophecy about the Christ Child, Simeon said this child would be a light for revelation to the nations. The prophetess Anna, who was in the Temple too, also offered her prayers and thanks to God when she saw the Child Jesus. But Simeon also warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart.

In the Church calendar, this Gospel story is recalled on 2 February, the Feast of Candlemas, the feast that moves us from Epiphany to Lent – that bridges the seasons of Christmas and Easter.

I cannot help but hold together the twin images provided from Simeon’s words to the Mary who cradled the Christ Child in her arms as she brought him to the Temple and the same Mary who cradles the Man Christ in her arms when is taken down from the cross.

I cannot look at Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation, or a similar, contemporary painting in Venice by his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, without thinking too of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in Saint Peter’s Basilica, completed almost 40 years after Mantegna’s Presentation

In Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation, Simeon is handing the Christ Child back to Mary, wrapped in the swaddling clothes that look like the grave clothes in which is body is wrapped after the Crucifixion, the shroud that is pointed to by the middle finger of the dead Christ in Holbein’s painting.

In Mantegna’s painting, Mary holds and caresses the Christ Child, giving him a gentle kiss, just as she later holds his body taken down from the cross, gently weeping over him.

The Mary that must have wondered about the meaning of Simeon’s prophecies and promises about her son is soon reduced to weeping over his dead body.

How could she have known that death meant anything other than the end?

Could there be any hope after this?

We know there is. We live in the light of the Resurrection. The candles of Candlemas remind us why we have Christmas candles. There is no meaning to Christmas unless we understand the meaning of Good Friday. And Good Friday has no meaning unless we have Easter faith.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

That link between Christmas and Easter, enunciated by Simeon at Candlemas, is expressed with deep insight by TS Eliot (1888-1965) in his poem, A Song for Simeon, written in 1928, a year after he was baptised and confirmed an Anglican.

A Song for Simeon is spoken by an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Eliot also draws on a Christmas sermon in which Bishop Lancelot Andrewes spoke of: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.” In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.”

There are several examples of prophetic imagery in A Song for Simeon:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation …
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow …

These refer to the scourging of Christ at his crucifixion and his mother weeping as he was crucified.

This poem starts with a winter scene:

Lord, the Roman’s hyacinths are blooming in the bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.

In this poem, Eliot confines his comments on things of the past to four lines in the second stanza, and places his emphasis on the time that has been spent making an inner journey of faith:

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.

We are aware too, that Simeon is very old. He is hanging on, waiting for God’s promise, so that he can die:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

Three times in the poem, Simeon asks for peace. Is he referring to the peace that will come with his own death? Or the peace of Christ that passes all understanding? As Christians, we don’t believe that death is the end of our journey. Even before death, Eliot marks his baptism and confirmation as, if not the end of, then a triumph on, his spiritual journey. He has come to a place of faith, and now he is encouraged to continue on his spiritual journey.

The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. We can imagine ourselves listening to Simeon’s prophetic voice, or imagine the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour at a later age, from a viewpoint and with insights denied to Simeon himself.

In the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, the old Simeon in prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem prays: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” By contrast, Eliot’s speaker sings: “Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.” This is not prayer at all. Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, protected from the winter cold, are Roman, the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the youth killed by mistake by Apollo when his rival, Zephyrus, turned the flight of a discus.

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills as the speaker waits for the death wind. Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man’s death flourish in the world of Eliot’s speaker and provide the language for speaking of life and death and life beyond.

Voices are heard from the Christian future, which the blind Simeon will not see. He is still waiting for the wind to blow, imagines only the death wind that will bear him away.

“Grant us thy peace” – the speaker evokes the Agnus Dei from the liturgy. Here we have a prayer for the peace that the Eucharist will offer, although Simeon will never share in the Eucharist.

In the first stanza, he tells of his own death.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. We are pointed towards New Testament images of the foxes that have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; of the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem from foreign faces and swords, and who will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.

In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. This Christ will tie cords to drive the traders from the Temple, will be whipped and scourged, and hear the lamentation of the weeping women of Jerusalem on the way to his death on a hill, above the “abomination of desolation,” and to his mother’s sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.

Simeon’s death is imminent, but far more is to come, for with the birth of this child a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.

In Nunc Dimittis, Simeon pleads: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and in an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy.

Eliot capitalises “Thee” for the one and only time, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church: “They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation …”.

Simeon warns Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” But we might ask whether the heart, Eliot’s speaker says will be pierced is God’s own heart.

The weary speaker concludes by praying:

Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation

At the very end of the poem, we seem to have arrived at the start of Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is now seen in a new light, as a prelude to the canticle. The poet, now baptised, has the hope of a greater hope, having seen his salvation. He is tired of his former life, there is consolation as derision turns to glory. Baptised into the death of Christ, he has been born into new life.

The Presentation in the Temple ... a window by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glione in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had 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 given and taken 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.

King’s College, Cambridge, King’s College Chapel and the corner of King’s Parade, Cambridge

Music 2: Nunc Dimittis, Herbert Howells, the Gloucester Service, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 4’ 35”.

Our second piece of music for reflection this evening is the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, from the Gloucester Service by Herbert Howells, and sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Nunc Dimittis is the traditional Gospel Canticle of Night Prayer or Compline, just as Benedictus and Magnificat are the traditional Gospel Canticles of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. And so, for Anglicans, Nunc Dimittis became a traditional canticle in Evening Prayer or Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer from 1662 on.

Settings for this canticle in the Anglican tradition include a plainchant theme by Thomas Tallis, and settings by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins, Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Wood and Herbert Howells.

The composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born in Gloucestershire, and first studied the organ at Gloucester Cathedral with Sir Herbert Brewer, alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney. There he first met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became his close friend and mentor. Howells later studied at the Royal School of Music under Stanford, Parry and Wood. During World War II, he was the acting organist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

His early upbringing inspired him to give the name The Gloucester Service to the service from which we hear this evening’s setting of this canticle. It was written in 1946, is richly nuanced and spiritually uplifting.

We listen to it this evening sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, recorded in 1991. The organist was the organ scholar, Christopher Hughes.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the second of three reflections for ‘A service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave’ on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

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