Prologue: The Alabaster Flask
Over the bowed Head, the anointing oil of nard
pours from Mary’s broken alabaster flask—
certainly, she filled that room with the fragrant adoration of her Lord;
certainly, even then, some grudged Him that embalming, with their indignant jealousy—
you heard it in the thief’s voice, sneering at the poor;
and the Master, raising His burial, raising her memorial, raises their approaching loss,
beyond the maddening fragrance of the pure
ointment. But the bedeviled thief rose in envy, and over Christ, his bottled hatred broke.
“Who is this, this peasant prophet, wailing shoah on the city?
What is this riot of rags and branches down the thoroughfare?
And why this bacchanal of blasphemy resurrecting from Bethany?
Which Balak sends this Balaam’s foal to mock Messiah?
Where next this din of thieves, this unwashed brood of publicans?
Will they impale the merchants and the bankers and the priests on their hosannas
when they’ve stormed the precincts of the porch?
While their ambitious carpenter withers, as usual, in some forgotten Arimathean sepulchre?”
Bitter herbs, bread unleavened, wine, and lamb slain between the two evenings—
do the twelve comprehend they are settling the last rites of Exodus, sipping the watered dregs of that final Pascha?
And beyond fiction, in the Servant’s holy hands, the betraying heel. And the flat-footed denials. And the splayed doubts. And other such leavenings.
Out of the common dish comes the separating sop to deepen their perplexity.
So there, above some obscure alley in His City, all our wretched story— Eden, Sinai, Golgotha—
is passed over, for His Bread, His Wine, His bitter Tree.
Later still, such talk under the brooding night! Then prayer, a hymn,
and over the Kidron, into Gethsemane.
What commenced in the other garden begins to end here,
in the shadow of an olive mill by a black brook.
“Behold, We have become like one of them, to bear
their sorrows and their griefs.” Let the wheel break
this Fruit on every tooth and tread. Bruise
the Seed under the trampling heel of the Bull
of Bashan. Pour the sweating barrel
of this agony into the cupping palms of God.
“O Galilean, robed in purple, crowned with thorns,
is this Your estate? Is this Your kingship,
reduced to the scourge of their envy and spit? God born
of man, behold Your truth: silver kisses treacherous palms, shape-shifters
rend their costumes at cock-crow, the Pavement is soiled
by the desolation of Your bloody Purity. Look Carpenter,
is Caesar not adored, is Barabbas not preferred?
See, Holy Fool, You and Your Jews, I wash my hands of You!”
They leave Him nothing but irreducible nakedness—
no fig-leaf girdle, no swaddling cloth, no seamless tunic;
they impale the battered Scarecrow on the Skull’s brow; their final curses
perforate the darkening skin of the sun; His distending knuckles
claw the veil of the God-forsaken air; yet, even now,
He thirsts only for the sour wine at the end of the hyssop branch; stricken
between earth and heaven, His heart opens to a new covenant,
and pours its blood and water on the Father’s reconciling Hands.
Pieta of Joseph of Arimathea
“He was all scattered, empty-limbed, exhausted, gone,
when I gathered Him off the stake. O my Son,
my Son! I was more Your son than You were mine,
Your tentative disciple, peeping out the Council’s shutters for Your Kingdom.
O my wounded King! Holy, Holy, Holy Child! O my dear,bruised Prince!
O Father, receive Him in our poor linen, swathing His torn
flesh. May these paltry spices herald His approach
to Heaven’s Throne. O LORD, give this Your Servant rest in Your eternal Rock.”
“Have you ever shaken hands with a man who was dead?
Have you ever looked into the laughing eyes of a man who beat death?
Have you ever sat next to such a one and shared his salt bread?
Friend, do you know the incomparable odiferousness of the breath
of a resurrected man? Friend, have you been led in Zion’s psalms
by a voice that scattered the doomed wealth
of Satan’s domains? Stranger, I have known the encompassing arms
of such entombing and embalming Grace.”
O Lord Christ, that we might,
with hearts' mouths hushed, see You
take the backyard-oven bread
You share with us, see Your hands
raise that plump loaf up into
this day's lavender end,
know with burning, blessed
sight, it's our Master bends
and breaks those dry-crust ends
of breasts of Paix-Bouche bread.
"In Caravaggio's ikon"
In Caravaggio’s ikon of Thomas seeing Christ
all eyes are locked to the doubter’s firm finger
poking around the torn flesh, under
the strong hand of the Carpenter. Thomas,
Apostle to our secular, mocking, murderous
new age, meeting his worst-case scenario
with the firm grit of flesh under his thumb
that index of incarnation— incarnation, Immanuel
God is with us — under the impossible rubble
as we claw at the unimaginable earthfall, Immanuel—
over the body of someone’s son fallen in crossfire
in shrieking shadowlands of betrayal
through terminal disorientation of disease, Immanuel.
Because that wound is real, the death was certain
here, beyond reason, beyond the apocalypse
of private disasters, is something else
is Life beyond life, beyond heartbreak
beyond assassination, beyond the tremblor
at 3 in the afternoon, beyond the amnesiac cancer of the mind.
Here, under our finger, is faith, here is hope,
and He asks us, against the brutal heel on the locked door
the harsh fist of imploding earth
the shroud covered bier—
“Love one another.”
- Georges Rouault. Head of Christ, c.1937.
- Hieronymus Bosch. Passion of Christ, c.1513.
- Andrea del Sarto. Detail, The Last Supper, 1527.
- William Brassey Hole. Gethsemane.
- Caravaggio. Christ at column, 1607.
- Guido Rocha. The tortured Christ (sculpture), 1975.
- Michaelangelo. Piéta, 1498-1499.
- Caravaggio. Supper at Emmaus, 1606.
9. Caravaggio.The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1602.
10. John Robert Lee. Crown. (photo of carving by J.Thelemaque), 2006.
All poems © John Robert Lee, 2011
These poems form part of the collections “Canticles” Easter, 2007, “elemental”, 2008, and new work.