Holy Week Poems

Image source

 Palm Sunday
We know the inevitable end,
yet walk this way with song.
With each step into story
the story permeates us.
This annual trudge to Calvary
the impulse to Jerusalem
no angel encouragement
no accompanying miracle.
We cluster like women who weep
recruited like unwilling Simon
offering our crooked consolations,
yet Christ took comfort from a thief.
Girls lift altar cloths aloft
borne in graceful arms like shrouds
or banners, woven in white linen
heralding this sacred way we walk.
 Kathy Coffey from here

Sadao Watanabe's "Borrowing a Donkey", 1968

The Poet Thinks About The Donkey

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Mary Oliver from her book Thirst.

The Donkey 

 G.K Chesterton captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.
Sadao Watanabe's "The Triumphal Entry", 1974

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

 G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

This is a remarkable poem by Emily Bronte and one which I pray my faith will follow this coming Holy Week.

No Coward Soul is Mine

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hath rest
As I Undying Life, have power in thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And though wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed

by Emily Bronte

Wilfred Owen,was one of the great World War One poets, and this one below based on the custom of the adoration and kissing /veneration of the cross on Good Friday is a moving reflection on our humility before a crucified Jesus.

The last line signifies beautifully the meaning of the ritual for the soldier and author of the poem, Owen himself returning home from the killing fields of war. (The title of the poem is a bit confusing as it is called Maundy Thursday)

                            Maundy Thursday

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(These kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed - my lips did cling.
I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.

 Wilfred Owen


It was the debate
of a lifetime,
the decision
of an eternity.
Who would have given
the late hour,
the heavy meal,
as an excuse for
dozing off
while a universe
held its breath
in anticipation of
But in a shadowed
garden, as he knelt
among rocks and
fallen figs
crying aloud
to the heart of heaven,
they slept.
Later they wondered
why he came to them
in tears and
whispers, asking
"Could you not remain
awake with me
one hour?"

Christ in Gethsemane by artist Michael D. O' Brien

Mary Oliver, often described as "the Jesuit's favourite poet " due to her exquisite flair of finding God in all things here shows explicitly the gentle fusion of nature with the spiritual. 
Oliver declared that her poems "absolutely" are meant as prayers; prayers made of grass, and roses and keenly gathered words.

Gethsemane by Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,

maybe,the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement, lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

                                                                           James Tissot

                        Descending Theology: The Garden

We know he was a man because, once doomed,
   he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
   his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
   wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he'd asked.
   That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
   but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
   it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn't intervene,
   though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
   was our doing, our death.
The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
   into the betrayer's ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
   the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
   of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
   the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
   to press a kiss on his brother.

 Poem: "Descending Theology: The Garden" by Mary Karr from Sinners Welcome: Poems. © Harper Collins Publishers. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I don't suppose Rilke intended this untitled poem below to be linked with any of the events of Good Friday, but the first time I read it, my immediate thoughts turned to the repentant thief on the cross.

 Pardoning the repentant thief
James Tissot

It is a wonderful poem/prayer of raw honesty applicable to many aspects of human nature and its flaws. It shows how fragmented and broken our lives can become and how we long to be gathered up "in the great hands of God's heart " so our shattered selves can be made whole.

I am praying again, Awesome One.
Your hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.

I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.
In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.

With my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
the eyes with which I once beheld you.

I am a house gutted by fire
where only the guilty sometimes sleep
before the punishment that devours them
hounds them out into the open.
I am a city by the sea
sinking into a toxic tide.

I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown
had poisoned my mother as she carried me.
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself again.

I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart–
oh, let them take me now.

Into them I place these fragments, my life,
and you, God–spend them however you want.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours
translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

 Good Friday
Adam, where are you?”
God’s hands
palpate darkness, the void
that is Adam’s inattention,
his confused attention to everything,
impassioned by multiplicity, his despair.
Multiplicity, his despair;
God’s hands
enacting blindness. Like a child
at a barbaric fairground –
noise, lights, the violent odors –
Adam fragments himself. The whirling rides!
Fragmented Adam stares.
God’s hands
unseen, the whirling rides
dazzle, the lights blind him. Fragmented,
he is not present to himself. God
suffers the void that is his absence.

Denise Levertov, On a Theme by Thomas Merton

Brier: Good Friday

Because, dear Christ, your tender, wounded arm
Bends back the brier that edges life’s long way,
That no hurt comes to heart, to soul no harm,
I do not feel the thorns so much today.

Because I never knew your care to tire,
Your hand to weary guiding me aright,
Because you walk before and crush the brier,
It does not pierce my feet so much tonight.

Because so often you have hearkened to
My selfish prayers, I ask but one thing now,
That these harsh hands of mine add not unto
The crown of thorns upon your bleeding brow.
by Pauline Johnson (“Tekahionwake”)
Ontario Mohawk poet, 1861-1913


Dust storm, we thought, a brown swarm
plugging the lungs, or a locust-cloud,
but this was a collapse, a slow sinking
to deeper brown, and deeper still, like the sky
seen from inside a well as we are lowered down,
and the air twisting and tearing at itself.
But it was done. And the body hung there
like a butchered thing, naked and alone
in a sudden hush among the ravaged air.
The ankles first-slender, blood-caked,
pale in the sullen dark, legs broken
below the knees, blue bruises smoldering
to black. And the spikes. We tugged iron
from human flesh that dangled like limbs
not fully hacked from trees, nudged
the cross beam from side to side until
the sign that mocked him broke loose.
It took all three of us. We shouldered the body
to the ground, yanked nails from wrists
more delicate, it seemed, than a young girl-s
but now swollen, gnarled, black as burnt twigs.
The body, so heavy for such a small man,
was a knot of muscle, a batch of cuts
and scratches from the scourging, and down
the right side a clotted line of blood,
the sour posca clogging his ragged beard,
the eyes exploded to a stare that shot
through all of us and still speaks in my dreams:
I know who you are.

So, we began to wash
the body, wrenching the arms, now stiff
and twisted, to his sides, unbending
the ruined legs and sponging off the dirt
of the city, sweat, urine, shit-all the body
gives-from the body, laying it out straight
on a sheet of linen rank with perfumes
so that we could cradle it, haul it
to the tomb. The wind shouted.
The foul air thickened. I reached over
to close the eyes. I know who you are.

B H Fairchild 

Good Friday

They call today Good Friday
but what could make this day good?
if you have ever believed that love inevitably leads to betrayal
this day says it doesn’t.
if you have ever believed that some people are unlovable, irredeemable
this day says they aren’t.
if you have ever believed that there is a limit to forgiveness
this day says there isn’t.
if you have ever believed you aren’t worth saving
this day says you are.
if you have ever believed that you don’t deserve freedom
this day says you do.
if you have ever believed that fear, anger, hate and despair will always win
this day says it won’t.
this day is good for you.

 by Cheryl Lawrie

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
         My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
         Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
         No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
         O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
         My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
         And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
         No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
         O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
         A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
         Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
         Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
         O Jesus, drink of me.

 By Christina Rossetti

 For Good Friday/ Easter Saturday
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away--
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing--
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 TS Eliot from 4 quartets

From “The Everlasting Mercy”

O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.

John Masefield

Holy Saturday

With the day no longer vigil
And the sky no longer confusion—
He is certain flesh, certain in the tomb—
We busy our hands with flower knives,
With flowers enough to wake the dead,
With the churching of flowers.
We slash the stems to make them drink,
Stand them one against another, vein-deep
In whatever false earth holds them up to us,
Unfallen petals open to the breaking dawn,
The incense and the spices of the buried flesh.

Lilies splayed like hands or stars, and baby’s breath,
Carnations on their brittle stems,
All bloom and die and bloom for us—
We’ve gathered them to mark the gift we took the day before.
Create in me a heart unfurling and as delicate as petals.
Create in me a green heart, startling and startled as the first leaves.
This is the bearable day
Between flesh and intention.

Our hands have turned from death to decoration.
This is the day we are given to preparation,
We are cutting the dead stock away from the branch
That it will sprout again, that its tender shoots will not cease
Though its root may grow old in the earth,

So will I fall away, so will I die, so will I hand back the gift again,
Again, again, so will I die down to my human root. So will
The season turn again to ash and altars.
What blossoms from the root consumes the ground it blossoms from.

 Devon Miller - Duggan from here

                                            You Whose Name
You whose name is aggressor and devourer.
Putrid and sultry, in fermentation.
You mash into pulp sages and prophets,
Criminals and heroes, indifferently.
My vocativus is useless.
You do not hear me, though I address you,
Yet I want to speak, for I am against you.
So what if you gulp me, I am not yours.
You overcome me with exhaustion and fever.
You blur my thought, which protests,
You roll over me, dull unconscious power.
The one who will overcome you is swift, armed:
Mind, spirit, maker, renewer.
He jousts with you in depths and on high,
Equestrian, winged, lofty, silver-scaled.
I have served him in the investiture of forms.
It’s not my concern what he will do with me.
A retinue advances in the sunlight by the lakes.
From white villages Easter bells resound.
Czeslaw Milosz


On View: Untitled, by D. Davis. As seen in the 'Los Angeles Visual Preludes 2009', presented to The General Convention of The Episcopal Church, Anaheim. The Rev. Gabriel Ferrer, Producer.

I have always been fond of the poetry of R.S. Thomas, Welsh priest and poet.

His poetry reflects his life long struggle to know the Living God and he was never at ease with the bland platitudes of religion and he was keen to allow questioning of rigid creeds and dogmas.

His poems honestly faced the problems one has, whether ordained or not of praying to God . Only a man who has spent hours on his knees could write as he does in his poem "In Church":

"Is this where God hides

From my searching?

There is no other sound

in the darkness but the sound of a man

breathing , testing his faith

on emptiness, nailing his questions

one by one to an untenanted cross".

Far from being a man of no faith, Thomas was a man of Job- like faith, struggling to make sense of the world and belief in a God of Love. 

Conventional theological answers did not satisfy him nor the facile fundamentalism of a faith that asked no questions. He saw the real problems of trying to believe in God and maintaining that belief in doubt. By articulating his doubts in his poetry he helped others be honest in their doubts too.

Which one of us has not had doubts about whether or not our prayers are heard or the existence of God ?

"To one kneeling down no word came
Only the wind's song
I never thought other than
that God is a great absence."

These words echo the loneliness faced by even Jesus himself in the  Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross when he said " My God, My God, Why  have You forsaken Me ?

But amidst seeming despair his fierce faith shines through,

a faith that had been tested by the silence of God...
"His are the echoes we follow
the footprints he has just left
We put our hands in
his side hoping to find
it warm."

He stood in a long tradition of those who had wrestled with God back to Jacob,Job, Isaiah, Doubting Thomas the disciple, St John of the Cross, Master Eckhart, St Teresa, Mother Theresa.
R.S.Thomas knew that God is a mystery to which our human words only point to by analogy. Our statements, words and images must always be incomplete and provisional.

In his autobiography, he said that there was nothing more important than the relationship between Man and God nor anything more difficult than establishing it.

"We have to live virtually the whole of our lives in the presence of an invisible and mute God, but that was never a bar to anyone seeking to come into contact with him. That is what prayer is."
Yet Thomas knew that Jesus was a window into God.
Again and again he refers to the centrality of the Cross and Resurrection.

He saw "love in a dark crown
of thorns blazing and a winter tree
golden with fruit of a man's body."

"I have looked in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place by themselves
like the piled grave clothes of love's risen body."
"We live best within listening distance
of the silence we call God."
"I would have things to say
to this God
at the judgement storming at Him
as Job stormed
with the eloquence
of the abused heart"

"Circular as our way is
it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city of glass
that is the laboratory of the spirit."

You can only write poetry like that if you have thought long and deep about your faith. He had looked deeply into the heart of things
Towards the end of his life Thomas summed up his position in these words of Tennyson :

"By faith and faith alone, embrace
Believing where we cannot prove."

God, says RS Thomas, reveals himself to us according to our capacity to receive him.

In these last few days of Holy Week I come with both: faith AND doubt. I come with both to lay both at the  foot of the cross, under the authority of the Word of Jesus.

I submit myself  to the authority of the Word even while I struggle to understand and  accept all that is in it.

There  is a nice reflection here on the confusion, uncertainty and  disbelief that came before the Easter joy and Alleluias.

The post is from Revd Canon Rosalind Brown at Durham Cathedral  but you may find the  font colour difficult to read.
I have reposted an extract  by R.S. Thomas quoted in her post below.

"The empty tomb, and the women's  experience at it, assures us that we too  can test our faith on emptiness. 

But if the empty tomb is all there is,  that in itself is not good news.

Instead the untenanted cross, the  empty tomb, are the essential preludes and signposts to the resurrection  encounter.

Emptiness is a part of our life, and we shut it out  at our  peril".

In this poem below by Mary Karr I love the physicality and raw visceral feeling of the love of God she conveys.  

She describes the bittersweet time for Jesus between His death and resurrection, waiting in the awful straining limbo of the tomb and then finally through to the vitality and fullness of life that God aches to give to us and the sensation of how lifeless and dry we are without it.

Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
      fix you into place.
Once the cross pops up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
      but your own self's burden?
You're not the figurehead on a ship. You're not
flying anywhere, and no one's coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
      trinity of nails holding you into place.
Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up
to breathe until you suffocate, give up the ghost.
If God permits this, one wonders how
      this twirling earth
manages to navigate the gravities and star tugs.
Or if some less than loving watcher
watches us scuttle across the boneyard greens
      under which worms
seethe and the front jaws of beetles
eventually clasp toward the flesh of every beloved.
The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels
      his soul leak away,
then surge. Some windy authority lures him higher
till an unseen tear in the sky's membrane is rent,
and he's streaming light, snatched back, drawn close,
      so all loneliness ends.

Mary Carr

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty. 
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face. 
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of. 
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. 

Now it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way. 

                                                                 By Mary Karr

April 5, 1974
by Richard Wilbur

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.

Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.

What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?

I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream,
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.

It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.

Flowers, I said, will come of it.

H/T to Jim Manney at Ignatian Spirituality for the one above.

O greening branch!
You stand in your nobility
Like the rising dawn.
Rejoice now and exult
And deign to free the fools we are
From our long slavery to ignorance
And hold out your hand
To raise us up.

Hildegard of Bingen


Is it true that after this life of ours
we shall one day be awakened by a
terrifying clamour of trumpets?
Forgive me, God,
but I console myself that the beginning
and resurrection of all of us dead
will simply be announced
by the crowing of a cock
After that we will remain
lying down a while
The first to get up
will be mother
We'll hear her, quietly
laying the fire, quietly putting
the kettle on the stove and
cosily taking the teapot out of the cupboard.
We'll be home once more.
Vladimir Holan (Translated by George Theiner)

Easter Day

THE silver trumpets rang across the Dome: 

The people knelt upon the ground with awe: 

And borne upon the necks of men I saw, 

Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome. 

Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam, 

And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red, 

Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head: 

In splendour and in light the Pope passed home. 

My heart stole back across wide wastes of years 

To One who wandered by a lonely sea, 

And sought in vain for any place of rest: 

'Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest, 

I, only I, must wander wearily, 

And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.'

 Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)

The poem Gethsemane is by Sally Sampson,IVP® Online Project Manager. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this poem for educational purposes provided this permission notice, and the copyright notice below are preserved on all copies.
Not to be reprinted in any other publication without permission.
© 1998 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the USA. All rights reserved.

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