Seeing the Unseeable

When duty called him
To Jerusalem
We had almost ceased
Our hearts parched
As the dusty hill-soil,
Our virtue,
Our blamelessness
A habit,
Our love salted
With sorrow
To be forever

He came back
So that instinct,
Stronger than love,
Than reunion,
Backed me away
Behind my loom.

The writing tablet,
Thrust roughly
Into my hesitant hands,
Of incense,
Gabriel himself,
Joy for us,
A son,
The Holy Spirit
Elijah reborn,
Our son,

I was afraid,
Seeing him maddened
By despair’s visions,
Until I looked harder,
Saw his wild hope
Shot with incredulity,
To have seen the unseeable,
Been offered the impossible,
And believed.

SIA 11 xii 2013




Maker of Dreams

In the mysterious season of Advent,
when time turns on its tail,
today’s post precedes yesterday’s
in story, if not in fact.

The tree grew in his mind: a tall straight stem from Jesse, with branches that curled up and out, offering blossom and leaf and fruit. And there, on every branch, the people of Israel were at rest. Solomon leaned back and admired the straight lines of the temple. Ruth and Boaz dangled their feet from a limb and sorted a lapful of grain. David played the harp as the birds sung in unending praise. And there — at the very top– Zechariah saw his own dear Elizabeth, laughing with Mary and tending the buds of the tree.

Zechariah startled, and woke himself with a snort. Strange dream. No sense in it. What was Jesse doing, lying on the ground? But somehow it felt right, the beauty and wonder and joy.

Zechariah rolled over and pulled the blanket up as Ramiel went back to work.

The angel sat in the corner watching the old man. Mustn’t start too soon. Let sleep reclaim him. Ramiel sketched a leaf that tumbled to the ground and fell onto a wide straight road. Zechariah settled down as the road rose before him. Ramiel sketched faster and soon there was a riot of people, dancing towards the temple in anticipation and joy. Ah, Zechariah liked this dream. This made sense to him. And sure enough, as he pushed his way to the front of the crowd, he could see his son – his long awaited child. Zachariah dreamed not of the child who would soon be born, but of a grown man: called from birth to prepare the way of the Lord.

Ramiel drew very carefully now. Zechariah’s hopes were full of the images of the temple — so Ramiel let it be. He drew the gleaming white walls in the distance. He allowed Zechariah to dress his son in finely woven robes. Ramiel adorned the dreamt-of-John with the cloak of righteousness. He filled the path they walked on with amber and gold.

Zechariah watched as the people gathered around his son. Ramiel sketched in a leper, a servant girl, and a sage just to see if Zechariah would notice. Zechariah stirred uneasily, but soon refocused on the majesty of his son. Ramiel flipped his pencil and brushed away some of John’s beauty.

Gabriel stood over Ramiel, watching the drawings unfold. “Finally! You let that little fantasy run on long enough.”

Ramiel looked at him briefly. “Don’t worry — the road will fork up ahead. But he’s had a hard time since you silenced him. He deserves a few minutes of fatherly pride. Besides: Jophiel thinks that if we let him dream, he may give us a song.”

Gabriel looked wary. He hated it when Ramiel and Jophiel got together — there was just too much attention to beauty, and an occasional disregard for truth.

Zechariah went on dreaming. He saw the crowd gather around John as he promised fogiveness and Christ to come. Zechariah sighed in deep satisfaction. Ramiel spotted his cue. He picked up a new lead — softer and darker. He sketched quickly: a landscape of darkness; a covering of cloud. His hand danced back to John’s cloak and he tore a bit off while Zechariah wasn’t looking. He lengthened John’s hair and muddied the crowd. Zechariah walked on, entranced with the thought of his blessed son.

Ramiel sketched out the wilderness, the river, the hard places of human life — and then he went back, and set his hand to the road. The road that led straight to the temple — the road of Zechariah’s dreams. Ramiel looked carefully at it, and admired its beauty. He too wished for glory — wished that the way to God was paved with gold.

He turned to Gabriel and saw the pain in his face. Gabriel more than anyone knew the risk God was taking — the grief that lie ahead.

Ramiel took his sharpest lead and made the road turn. The crowds moved into darkness, into a wilderness of sin. Zechariah felt the shift, and was bewildered: surely this isn’t right. This is not where we are supposed to go.

“That’s enough.” Gabriel said. “Stop there if you want your song.”
Ramiel smiled at Gabriel’s sudden generosity. The truth is, Gabriel preferred glory too.

Ramiel reached for a brush and dipped it in crimson and gold. He scattered light across the wilderness and let the dawn break. Zechariah caught a glimpse of radiance, then woke to Elizabeth’s cry.

Soon, his son would be born.

“Well done.” Gabriel said to Ramiel. “You should get your song. But John won’t be like that, and Zechariah isn’t ready. Have you planned the next dream?”

Ramiel bent down and lifted a scroll from the floor. As it fell open, Gabriel saw locust after shiny locust in spotty-winged splendour.

“Oh yes. I have planned the dream.”
Gabriel bowed and withdrew as Ramiel began to draw the bees.

Look again

‘Does he have to be so ugly?’
The angel huffed.  He was not enjoying this at all.

‘Ugly, Jophiel?’

‘Ugly.  Just look at him.  Scraggly hair.  Calloused skin.  Clothes — can you call those clothes?– sodden and drippy from the river.  His voice rasps; his hand shakes.  His eyes are wild.’

‘Your ear serves you well, my friend; but your eye lets you down.  Look again.  Look for beauty.’

Jophiel took a deep breath and searched diligently across the valley.

‘There,’ he said at last, pointing. ‘The way the light falls on that piece of rock: blazing red, then falling into deepest purple.  There is beauty.  And over there: the way the sun shimmers on the sand so that earth and sky meet?’  Jophiel turned his head, and pointed in excitement, ‘and there:  even there in those dead reeds.  Do you see how the seed head clings on, and catches the light, and dances.  That is beautiful.’

God smiled.  He had to admit that Jophiel was good at this game.  God nodded in agreement and gave Jophiel a moment to soak in the glory.  And then he leaned into him, and pointed to the man below,

‘And there,’  God said.  ‘That man is beautiful.’

Jophiel sulked a bit, then looked again.

A man:  ugly and unkempt,  mud-masked and smelly.  Shouting endlessly of sin and repentance.

Jophiel shuddered and let his eye slip back to the river.

God was more stern this time:  ‘Jophiel, LOOK.’

A man: caring nothing for convention, abandoning the temple, leaving behind all that was ordered and safe and understood to find freedom in the desert.

John picked up a locust.  He admired the little creature, then popped it in his mouth.  Jophiel looked horrified and began to protest.

‘Jophiel: look.’

A man: somewhat mad, but passionately committed.  Undaunted.  Unafraid.  Able to see God in the harshness of the wilderness.  Able to help others find God there too.

Jophiel watched as John strode into the river.  His head sunk beneath the surface and then he sprang up sending water out like diamonds.  John laughed and his face was radiant.  He drew breath and cried out, ‘Repe-e-e-ent!’

Then at last, Jophiel saw it.

A man: crying in the wilderness.  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’

Jophiel, too, was left breathless.  He leaned into God and pointed, ‘There.  That man.  He is beautiful.’

‘Thank you.’ God said, smiling.  ‘I did say…’

Jophiel laughed and pressed into God again, whispering:
‘But I still think he should cut his hair.’

wrong apocalypse

Heat burned. The sun baked, destroyed. The water was all the more delightful in contrast. Fasting until hunger died, water never failed to give joy. I dunked them all. I took all who came, and turned them round, washed off the past, set them on track to become true children of the father-of-us-all Abraham. I was so wide, so radical in my acceptance. Nobody fell outside the scope of my message. Collaborators, extortioners – I told them all they could live a life as acceptable to God as the next man.

But it was a balanced message. I did full justice to the demands of Heaven for radical purity. I told them all to repent. I spoke of the one who would come. I spoke of the joy of his gathering in those who I was winnowing clean, but I also spoke of the terror of fire. I spoke of the destruction of evil.
Now I turn to and fro, to and fro, pacing this small cell. For I thought I knew the one who was coming after and he has let me down. Where is the radical purity? Where is the constant demand for repentance, the new life? Fire? Fire?

He forgives, not the Heavenly One, him – alright, I offered a new start, but in return for repentance. He just – he just offers it. He gives it away free. He cheapens it. He cheapens the Lord.
I offered them cool out of the fire, I gave them water and cleansing, and I gave to all who were sorry. I hear tonight he went to the house of a self righteous Pharisee, who would never recognise how his own wealth was an affront, and he had a common tart draped over his feet, and he just sat there, stuffing his face and talking about how they were all forgiven. And not one word of judgement, not one. This one offers no fire of any kind, nothing to burn up, transform, consume.

And yet, and yet. Some things that he says chime true as a bell. Some things that he does. So I pace here, waiting, waiting for my disciples to report back. My heart sinks. I had thought I would not die before I saw the One Who Is To Come.

Is this self-indulgent one with his easy words, that One? Would it be better or worse if he was?