Skip to main content

Antiphon (a sonnet)

A poem I wrote over Christmas, which originally appeared in the February 2016 Sophia Network blog:



ANTIPHON

How many have said no who were not heard?
Men of all tongues have wielded will and might,
And the presumption that the sum makes right,
Against the impotence of Tamar's word.
The image jointly borne is two-ways marred:
One brutal face to face one framed in fright,
As ‘love’ unsatisfied engenders hate,
Faith fails, and hope seems hopelessly deferred.

But He whose strength eclipses any man's
Waits for a yes and, with a girl's consent,
Proceeds to bless the nations, bring down low
The mighty, raise the meek with outstretched hands;
A Word within a womb, expressed full vent
In answer to each disregarded no. 
Carolyn Whitnall, 2015



It happened that I spent much of December past grappling in new ways with Luke's Annunciation account. I'd not long since been reading 2 Samuel, and the story of Tamar's rape by her brother Amnon had resonated painfully with a slowly dawning realisation that 'rape culture' – about which I had been naive at best, dismissive at worst – is a widespread reality of varying insidiousness. One verse in particular stood out to me:
But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. (2 Samuel 13:14)
It is hard to imagine a pithier encapsulation of sexist oppression: women are ignored; they are overpowered; they are violated.

Reading the opening chapters of Luke with this in mind, I found myself mulling the question of Mary’s choice in the matter of Jesus’ conception and birth. Can one really refuse God’s purposes? Is there a sense in which Mary is another ‘overpowered’ woman? Luke doesn’t offer explicit, unambiguous reassurances – “And Gabriel asked Mary: ‘Will you agree to conceive in your womb…?’”, for example. But I do believe that the unforced nature of Mary’s willing involvement in God’s astonishing plans is profoundly implicit: 
  • In the ordering of events – God does not simply act and then inform Mary afterwards; there is scope for an alternative course of events if she refuses.
  • In the exhortation not to fear – nor, by implication, to cooperate on the basis of fear rather than devotion and trust.
  • In all that the Bible as a whole, and the Incarnation in particular, reveals about the character of God and His loving, gentle, self-surrendering, status-quo-overturning manner of drawing us – rather than compelling us – into life with Him.
A 'difficulty' of God's non-dictatorial, self-emptying dealing with us is that injustice and cruelty so often seem to continue unchecked. He does not simply swoop in and do away with all the 'bad guys' – but given (as Solzhenitsyn famously put it) "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being" (The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956) perhaps we should be at least as reassured by that restraint as we are tempted to feel discouraged by it. Mary and many followers of Jesus recognised and recognise in him the 'now and not yet' fulfilment of God's promise to once-and-for-all restore and redeem broken humanity (Luke 1:46-56); in the meantime, his un-self-sparing participation in human life and suffering (Philippians 2:1-11) offers comfort and a pattern for servant-hearted, status-quo-challenging living which contributes towards the increase of justice and healing in the here and now...


[Thumbnail image: Annunciation, artist unknown. Public domain.]

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

An autobiographical poem about walking on water

A decade ago, give or take – feeling at crisis point in my mental health and desperately socially disconnected – I "went up for prayer" at a church I was visiting. (I find it hard to do this at my own church when I feel desperately socially disconnected. It's hard enough even to be at my own church at such times). And the gentle, kindly woman who placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed some simple, general, healing words to suit my simple, general, hurting plea looked thoughtfully at me afterwards and said "just, if and when you can, keep taking each next step towards Jesus, whatever that looks like," or words to that effect. It seemed as good a plan as any, so I did. (Not instead of getting medical and professional help, I hasten to add; seeking out and receiving whatever support is available has always felt more like an action of faith than a compromise of it).

Since then, stepping towards Jesus has taken me (slowly, often painfully, and usually the long w…

The Sin of Onan

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:6-10) According to Google's answer to what (let's face it) must be right up there among the most-asked questions since the invention of the search engine, this story is the closest the Bible comes to saying anything directly about masturbation.

And it isn't a story about masturbation. It's not even a story, not really, about birth control methods – although they feature. It's a story about the denial of ju…

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.  (T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land, part I: The Burial of the Dead,1922) These lines have lingered in my mind the past few days. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the years following the First World War, when the landscape of humanity seemed perhaps particularly stark and bleak. The poem resounds with disquiet and despair: all glimpsed respite turns out to be illusory or faltering; it seems improbable that any grounds for real hope exist at all. Eliot …