Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day, Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin; And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away Captivity thence captive, us to win: This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin; And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye, Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin, May live for ever in felicity!
Edmund Spencer 1552-1599
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And the were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?”. And looking up they saw that the stone was rolled back – it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. and he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. he has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying.
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs falling;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930)
Awaking this morning to see snow slowly drifting down I turned to thinking of how snow affects our thoughts, ideas and perceptions.
Snow in winter gives the opportunity for fun for the more energetic, for those born in temperate climes where snow is not a regular event even a light covering invites the young to rush out, build snowmen, toboggan and generally have fun. For those whose years are lengthening snow becomes a little more perilous and not to be welcomed especially when it freezes and turns to ice. Visually, snow imparts a glowing white beauty to the landscape, clean, clear, crisp vast expanses of white shine through the winter day and glow in the moonlight of a winter night.
However as with all things there is another side to this beauty, snow can be used to portray malevolence and pure evil. In his well-known works CS Lewis starts his books with the mythical land of Narnia trapped in 100 years of winter by the White Queen.
The snow does not thaw, the ice does not melt making food gathering difficult and travel well-nigh impossible. Speeding through the landscape on a sled the White Queen freezes all in her path and it is the work of the children to start the thaw, to melt the snow and ice so that the world might return and emerge into spring. Of course, these are allegorical tales of myth but although we might enjoy a short period of snow when we can enjoy sport and play it is with a sense of relief when the snow thaws and days begin to warm.
Snow falling as blizzard can blind us, once settled it can dull our senses; as humans we are not well suited to cold and snow, only certain members of the animal kingdom can really be said to be ‘at home’ in the snow and they live where the snow rarely departs. Those parts of our world where snow is perpetual, places of enchantment and wonder, of perilous cold and of dread and fascination.
As our world changes, as change it must, we seem to see less snow than of old, even in our own lifetimes the cycles of the year change, no longer are frost fairs held on the river Thames in London, no longer can we look forward to White Christmases although these have always been rare, indeed what we now term as snow events seem to be very localised and in these places more intense and severe, places where the distinction between the pleasure and the pain of snow is lightly balanced. Writing in the 15th c. Francois Villon reminds us that the changes we see all around us are not new, he writes
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? (But where are the snows of yesteryear?)
Francois Villon (b.1431) Le Grand Testament, Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) talks of ‘The Frolic Architecture of the Snow’, perhaps a slightly fanciful view but looking out at the snowfields at the extremities of our world snow does indeed impart an architectural shape to the landscape.
The traditional words to the medieval poem, now sung as a carol talk of man being constrained, not by disease and plague but by sin. The carol bases its thinking on the salutary tale of original sin as recounted in the book Genesis. This tale, written thousands of years ago reminds man that he can never escape sin and that temptation is all around. The birth of Christ, celebrated on Christmas Day is, to some, the beginning of the process of redemption. Other faiths and those of none take differing view on redemption and the idea of freedom. At times in the history of mankind, we are brought up short and reminded that we are fallible and that nature will always dictate our lives. In times of war and conflict, sadness and bereavement and, as we currently find ourselves, sickness and plague we are brought up short and nature imposes on us a time of reflection; a time to slow our lives and consider how we behave towards our world and one another.
Adam Lay y Bounden, bounden in a bond: just as we find ourselves today, we find ourselves bound in our own lives and communities, freedoms have been taken away and suddenly the natural world seems far more real. The sounds of birdsong have become louder; the perfumes of nature, of flowers and grasses more intense; the colour of the changing seasons have invaded our spaces but, around the world quietness has become more evident.
We have come once again to the silence of the Winter Solstice, the days are short and, in the north, the nights are long and cold but the cycle of life continues and we think again, as we have for over two thousand years about the birth of a baby whose life was to fundamentally change the world forever. Belief in a biblical nativity is, perhaps, at times difficult and theologically very imprecise; the nativity only appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew in the bible we accept today. We have however, testamentary evidence of a man, who was a preacher and who was offered up to the Roman authorities for crucifixion. Written in Josephus, a respected Roman historian the following passage appears:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
Clearly historians have to take care when quoting any source however there seems to be a degree of truth here, if this man lived and was thus treated, he must therefore have had to have been born. What this does is strip the story of its divinity; to restore this is a matter of faith. It is this faith, whatever is believed, that enables mankind to grow and to flourish. We are minded however that we must flourish in harmony with the world around us not in competition with it, for if we pursue the latter we will fail.
Thus Adam may have Lay y Bounden but through all that has happened over the centuries the bonds have fallen away on countless occasions and all because of Christmas Day.
To those of the Christian faith and to those of other faiths and of none the bonds will crumble.
The British Isles are suffused with, indeed drenched in history tracing a path through thousands of years, countless generations, and cultures too numerous to mention. Living in Northumbria we are aware more than many of the procession of time through the ages, we have access to the voices of history through the earliest times, the Roman annexation of Britannia into their empire, the rise of Saxon life overpowered by the Northmen, the destruction caused by the reformation, the political change during the glorious Revolution, the turbulent times of the twentieth century to our modern technological age.
Very occasionally a discovery is made which surprises and delights, but which might also completely change our view of life before our own experience. I visited Vindolanda recently to view a chalice, albeit fragmentary. Nothing strange there you might think however this chalice is dated (yet to be confirmed) to between the 5th and 6th century, following the departure in 410 A.D. of the Romans (well the departure was gradual rather than sudden) however the impact of Roman life declined very quickly. Christianity had been accepted over 150 years previously into Roman religious life under Constantine but was still not a major religion. At Vindolanda however evidence has been unearthed of Christian places of worship almost abutting pagan temples. How did this happen? This was clearly before Aidan and Cuthbert and the establishment of Christianity in the north. There is much to consider here.
The museum at Vindolanda now has a room dedicated to the immediate post Roman period in which is displayed a selection of British artefacts, the central display being the fragments of this fascinating chalice. Fragmentary, as I have mentioned, in 14 parts; the artefact is etched with symbols of early Christianity which are illustrated by a video display on the rear wall. The University of Durham is currently researching this unique and precious find which, in its beauty, raises so many questions about those who, lived, worked, and worshipped in Northumbria 1500 years ago.
I would urge anyone who has not visited Vindolanda and its museum to go and view this room, the accompanying texts illustrate the times and the reflections of Bede help us to understand the world as it was. This room was only opened in September 2020 and this object will surely change the progress of history for all, in particular those who see it.
Let us quit the leafy arbour, And the torrent murmuring by; For the sun is his harbour, Weary of the open sky.
Evening now unbinds the fetters Fashioned by the glowing light; All that breathe are thankful debtors To the harbinger of night.
Yet by some grave thoughts attended Eve renewed her calm career; For the day that now is ended Is the longest of the year.
Dora! sport, as now thou sportest, On this platform, light and free; Take they bliss, while longest, shortest, Are indifferent to thee!
The Longest Day – William Wordsworth 1770 -1850
So once again we reach the longest day of the year, the planet by its peregrinations through the universe, held fast by the gravity of the sun, revolves but at an angle thus giving us the solstice in our part of this northern hemisphere, the opposite being true in the south.
Once held as a sacred day when the sun was the centre of life and life revolved around the seasons this day still holds an almost magical aspect in our lives. This event is not one from which we can escape and yet, would wish to. As in an imposed routine this cycle of light and darkness, of lengthening and shortening days allows us to participate in the cycle of life, the cycle of the earth.
Many playwrights and authors have pondered the idea of midsummer, the most well known being the wonderful, rather hapless love story played out amidst the lives of aristocratic and common folk with a sprinkling of fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Who can ever forget the sight of the poor Bottom who, with his fried are planning a small entertainment to amuse the great folk. The naughty fairies playing their game and, under the stars of that short night change the man in front of his friends.
Snout. O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee? Bottom. What do you see? you see an ass-head of your own do you? Quince. Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare (Act III Scene I 121)
One of those lines in theatre that everyone knows and remembers fondly when they have seen the play. This is the shortest night of the year and the action must take place rapidly but that does not mean there cannot be a jest and, finally a marriage and a blessing, that naughty imp Puck hoping that we will forgive.
The sighs we are used to seeing, druids gathering at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise, midsummer revels in the long evening (perhaps not this year), the brief night giving way to the second half of the year whilst the earth keeps on revolving. Midsummer’s Day is indeed a day to rejoice in and the night, one to revel and think of those wonderful visions conjured up by poet and playwright.
Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go? Soon with the high Midsummer pomps come on, soon will the musk carnations break and swell, Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon, Sweet William with his holey cottage smell And stocks in fragrant blow
Round which is heard a spring-head of clear waters
Babbling so wildly of its lovely daughters
The spreading bluebells: it may happily mourn
That such fair clusters should be rudely torn
From their fresh beds, and scattered thoughtlessly
By infant hands, left on the path to die.
John Keats 1795-1821
A spring walk reveals change, change every day, the sudden appearance of the leaves on trees, the colours of the countryside, changing. Bright yellows and blues emerge, even the shades of green, so familiar seem more vibrant, the youthful vigour of grass reflected in the even more urgent call of the circling birds. what ever might be happening in the world,the inexorable progress of the seasons continues.
The bluebell, a wild harbinger of hope has, for generations been a signal of new life. The Language of Flowers, made popular by Charlotte de la Tour in ‘Le Langage des Fleurs’, published in 1818, describes, with a certain wistful glance back to earlier, simpler times the attributes that certain flowers bring. Some of these might alarm or bring about melancholy but not the bluebell, the bluebell is a sign and indicator of constancy. This delicate flower which emerges with it spring companions year upon year and carpets woodlands and hedgerows. So persistent in its desire to succeed this little gem can impinge itself where the gardener might not want it, but still it comes with its tiny blue bell shaped flowers hard to resist.
The bluebell has inspired art, colour, even perfume although it no perceptible fragrance of its own. Artists have drawn inspiration from the bluebell, perhaps because of its intense colour, a carpet of bluebells can literally shimmer from the forest floor as here in this wonderful evocation of spring.
This image of the painting Bluebells by sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema perfectly describes the woodland scene, the floor of the woodland carpeted in a haze of blue-purple bluebells.
Yet as suddenly as they appear, within weeks they will be gone once again, disappearing almost as suddenly as they came awaiting the return of spring once again. On a walk marvel once again at these beautiful marvels of nature and remember they signify constancy, they will always return to cheer and delight.
Climb at court for me that will Tottering favour’s pinnacle All I seek is to lie still. Settled in some secret nest In calm leisure let me rest, And far off the public stage Pass away my silent age. Thus when without noise, unknown, I have liv’d out all my span, I shall die, without a groan, An old honest country man. Who expos’d to others’ eyes, Into his own heart ne’er pries, Death to him’s a strange surprise.
Seneca – The Quiet Life (Trans: Andrew Marvell)
In times such as these when the human experience is changed, lives altered and ‘isolation’ is imposed and required, perhaps we are set to thinking about what isolation actually is, what does isolation mean? Are we really ‘isolated’?
From others of our own species then yes we are isolated, we are alone, we are cut off; yet on this planet we inhabit for, as Seneca tells us, only a while; we are never alone, we are never truly isolated. We are able at times to leave our dwelling and we can experience all that is around us, are we not now beginning to realise the beauty and companionship of nature, of natural things, of the delight of creation. Seneca here talks about a life about to end but having experienced the joy of his surroundings, the chance to ‘lie still’ and to be ‘settled’.
If far from the end of life but in the midst of the beauty of nature we are never alone, the sound of bird song, the slow crackle of fern fronds unravelling, the lazy stream meandering along its course, the sheer joy of bucolic beauty. To be able watch the birds wheeling in the sky and hear their many varying calls, to watch a an early butterfly settle on a flower, surely we are never alone.
Whether walking in a park or on remote moors life is all around and spring is a time for enjoying the re emergence of life all around us, we are never alone. Now is the time to appreciate difference, a new companionship, not one which will answer us in words but in experience, in connection with the natural world.
Thus perhaps as the poets and philosophers of old dedicated a life alone to explore the world around them now we have an opportunity to do the same, whether from an urban balcony or the surrounding countryside our experience is changing; change which needs to be embraced. Loneliness is real however we are never truly alone.
Then to the bower they came
Naked they came to that smooth-swarded bower
And at their feet the crocus brake like fire,
Violet, amaracus and asphodel
Lotos and lilies
[Tennyson – Oenone 1.22]
Spring is just around the corner and life is bursting from the still cold ground. We always marvel at the delicate blooms which, against all the odds seem to be deterred by very little. A light sprinkling of snow, frost and interminable rain and yet they still come.
Among the first of these is the crocus, often in the distinctly Lenten array of deepest purple, sometimes, preaging spring in white and other brighter shades. These delightful, fragile flowers are determined and definitely not to be ignored. The flower of this wonderful spring bloom, well of certain varieties can be collected that most precious of culinary delights, saffron. So difficult and rare to find is this spice that it commands the highest prices but adds a delightful piquancy to the dishes to which it is added.
As with so many flowers the Greeks attached a creation myth to it, a simple tale, unlike that of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection the tale of Crocus is far simpler.
Crocus, as a mortal youth, pined without success for the nymph SMILAX. Out of pity, the gods turned him into the saffron flower we call crocus. Another tale tells of him death at the hands of Hermes, his lover. Hermes then turned him into the crocus flower we know.
[See Stephen Fry – Mythos pp325]
Whatever the true tale here once we see the crocus bloom we know spring really is just around the corner and new life will soon burst upon us.
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