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Winter's Turning

from "A Christmas Sermon" of John Donne:

Though in the ways of fortune,or understanding, or conscience,Thou have been benighted till now,
wintered and frozen,clouded and eclipsed,damped and benumbed,smothered and stupefied till now,

Now God comes to thee,

not as in the dawning of the daynot as in the bud of the spring,

But as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadows,As the sheaves in harvest to fill all penuries.All occasions invite his mercies,And all times are his seasons.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Lovely sentiment, but I thought we established in a previous post that Donne was an opportunistic fake, perverting his talents as a poet to rise in the Anglican hierarchy under James I. Someone noted that Donne wrote in a letter that he was at his most eloquent when he believed the least. I'll never look at Donne the same. Or JK Rowling and her gay Dumbledore. Or St. Francis who didnt really say, "Pray; if necessary, use words." You Catholics are tough customers.Merry Christmas. I guess.

Jean: Trust the poem, not the poet.

Eugene, I'm being sarcastic, but that probably didn't come through. Just trying to make a point on how some have responded to literary offerings on this list before.Father Imbelli, apologies for being obnoxious.Jean

Wow, this is depressing.I'm beginning to believe there's no Santa Claus!

There is always Father Christmas, Kathy, or if you prefer, Pere Noel. There is a life without Santa Claus.

What are you trying to say, Joseph, about Santa Claus?Sometimes the sun at noon doth shine too brightly. Take pity.

I never did believe in Santa Claus, his elves or a toy shop at the North Pole, though my brother Paulie did. When he was 7, I decided he'd believed long enough, and dragged him out to the living room at midnight where Dad was putting presents under the tree and dumping the milk and cookies.Paulie started screaming, which woke up Mom, and she gave me a good hiding with the hairbrush for getting everyone all riled up.Some people just can't deal with the truth, even when it's for their own good.

Jean my daughter insisted on telling her younger brother that there was no Santa Claus. We tease her that she is responsible for all his faults.As far as I am concerned, Jesus is never more powerful in bringing home to us our loving God as when he says that what father would give his children a stone if they asked for bread and to ask God and we shall receive. The nuance that God wants us to be absolutely persistent in our pursuit of life in God, is so heart warming. Gratias agamus domino deo nostro!

Fr. Imbelli's selection from Donne seems a nice backdrop for the news, from the BBC, that Tony Blair has (officially) become a Catholic.

CNN's story says "the Church of England, which was created by royal proclamation during the 16th century after King Henry VIII -- who married six times -- broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church in a dispute over divorce."Heh.

The CNN version put an RC slant on the story, does it not? Is there a Jebusite lurking somewhere at CNN? Horrors!

This post raises another question for me: How many of us, in church, have ever heard a sermon that is a poem? (I don't mean quotes from Hallmark or "Footprints.") I'm not that fond of Donne, but I do wish we had more poetry in our preaching, more sensitivity to the beauty of words, better craftsmanship in use of their rhythms, and attention to how they fall on the ear. St. Ephraim the Syrian wrote sermons in verse, didn't he? Black preaching often uses the music of language to convey a message and call forth a response. Rarely, rarely do Catholic preachers employ such gifts. But maybe others have had a different experience?

Rita,I fully agree. If the whole liturgy is to be mystagogic, then the language used is certainly crucial.Now I am not an historian, but I presume Donne's sermons followed upon readings from the King James Bible -- NAB doesn't quite inspire the same poetic fervor. And did I mention the clunky collects we've been saddled with lo these many years? I will settle for the Book of Common Prayer any time.

Not to dampen the triumphalism about Tony Blair and all, but he and John Donne swam the Tiber, in opposite directions, just so's you know.I think it's also important to note that Blair's wife is Catholic and the kids are being raised Catholic, and Tony strikes me as someone who is fairly easily led by the prevailing winds, that whole buddy-buddy biz with George Bush as just an example.No, I have never heard a Catholic priest make up a poem for a sermon, recite a poem for a sermon, or refer to literature in any way. References to non-Catholic traditions seem mostly limited to football.Ouch! I'm such a grouch today, I've now begun to annoy myself.

Jean, you are delightful even when grouchy. Don't apologize.Robert, I think it's not so much a lack of inspiration as it is a lacuna in our culture overall concerning poetry. It's considered effete, useless; if people meet a poet at a dinner party, they wonder what else she or he does to earn a living or to be a productive member of society (a question never asked of athletes, for example).Poetry in Russia, for example, is far more highly esteemed, read, and cherished. Poets such as Osip Mandelstam were sent into exile for their poems, which were so threatening to Stalin and so powerful. Yvgeny Yevtushenko once said that a poem is an ambulance rushing to save someone's life, and when the poet Anna Akmatova died, thousands came to her funeral. Sadly, we are unlikely to see find excellent language in our translation of biblical and liturgical texts if it is not part of the fabric our our lives elsewhere. Yes, I sympathize with your concern about liturgy and mystagogy.

I like how this blog goes quiet on Saturday nights.However, I'm stuck in the rectory printing out endless programs for Christmas Masses: Christmas vigil, Christmas midnight, Christmas Dawn and Day. Two poetic moments in the Midnight Mass sparkle among the carols: the introit (I'm going to chant it and we have a translation in the program), Dominus dixit ad me: filius meus es tu, ego hodie genuite, and a song by Saint-Saens, Tollite hostias.Laetentur coeli, et exsultet terra ante faciem Domini, quoniam venit. Alleluia.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Liturgy is meant to have its own poetry, which involves the reading of Scripture in a figurative manner.

Thanks to a Boston College doctoral candidate, I was presented with this quote:Mystagogical preaching in the early church was "marked by a rhetorical ornamentation and theological splendor that is unparalleled by contemporary standards. The patristic mystagogues are given to images, metaphors, and stories that reveal the significance and deeper meaning of the baptismal symbols" (Jeffery Baerwald, "Mystagogy," in Fink,ed., The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship).

Sorry to be so talkative here, but I just want to put in a word for this book. (Blurb lifted from the Arch. of Washington website:The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: Origins of RCIA Type: BookCategory: RCIAAuthor: Edward Yarnold, S.J.In this book, Father Yarnold first compares and contrasts the initiation rites in the early Church with the restored catechumenate. A number of the baptismal homilies of St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia comprise the remainder of the text.Ordering Information: Liturgical Press, 1994, 166 pp. (800) 858-5450 / $14.95.

Just to note that the passage Bob Imbelle quotes is taken from a larger one that I sent in some time ago, that sparked the exchange to which Jean Raber refers. As Bob points out, it is from a sermon for Christmas, but it is not a poem, although it is set out in broken lines as it were one. In this respect it is like the famous line, "Ask not for whom the bell tools," which many people have sought among Donne's poems, when in fact it, too, is prose from a sermon.John Henry Newman was, I think, a fairly mediocre poet; it was his prose that could sing. Donne did both wonderfully.

Presumably the bell tolls and Imbelle tools. Whatever.

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