29 March 2021

Poems for Holy Week 2021:
1, Christina Rossetti, ‘Lent’

Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Patrick Comerford

Monday 29 March 2021

Reading: John 12: 1-11.

I am planning each evening in Holy Week this year, once again, to read a poem to help our reflections.

My choice of a poem for Holy Week this evening is ‘Lent,’ a short poem written about 1886 by the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).

We are more likely to associate Christina Rossetti with Christmas rather than Lent because two of her poems, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Love came down at Christmas,’ are among the best-loved and most popular Christmas carols.

She was born in London, the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, an exiled Italian poet, and she was a sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet. Their brother William Michael Rossetti and sister Maria Rossetti were writers too.

When she was 14, Christina Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and left school. Bouts of depression and related illness followed. During this period she, her mother and her sister became absorbed in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England, and religious devotion came to play a major role in Christian Rossetti’s life.

Her time spent alone, in prayer, in a single life, devoted to Christ and to working with the marginalised, might be compared with Mary in this evening’s Gospel reading, who devotes her wealth to Christ but is criticised by Judas.

She is honoured in the liturgical calendar of the Church of England and other Anglican churches on 27 April. Her writings have strongly influenced writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin.

Christian Rossetti wrote many poems on the theme of Lent, including ‘Lent,’ ‘Ash Wednesday,’ ‘Mid-Lent’ and ‘Good Friday.’

Her poem ‘Lent,’ in which she talks about ‘the present distress’ and the need ‘to watch and to pray,’ seems so appropriate as many of us continue to face isolation because of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

Her poem also seems to echo the themes and thoughts in the Collect of the Day, the Monday in Holy Week.

Lent, by Christina Rossetti

It is good to be last not first,
Pending the present distress;
It is good to hunger and thirst,
So it be for righteousness.

It is good to spend and be spent,
It is good to watch and to pray:
Life and Death make a goodly Lent
So it leads us to Easter Day.

John 12: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

The Collect of the Day:

O God,
who by the passion of your blessed Son made
an instrument of shameful death
to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ,
that we may gladly suffer pain and loss
for the sake of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘It is good to spend and be spent, / It is good to watch and to pray’ … a lone prayer in the church in Torcello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Continued tomorrow: CS Lewis, ‘Evensong’

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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