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March 23, 2021--our fiftieth episode!
The Coming
R. S. Thomas
And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week. This is our 50th episode!  Thank you for joining Scott, Jackie and me during this past year. I hope you’ve enjoyed the poems and commentaries as much as we’ve enjoyed preparing them for you.
This week, we’re reading a poem by R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican priest. This poem is called “The Coming,” and the “Coming” referred to is Christ’s coming. I had planned to do this poem in Advent, which is, of course, the liturgical season that is all about the coming of Christ. But the more I read this poem, the more I realized that it’s really an Easter poem.
“And God.” The first words of the poem take us immediately into the language of the Bible, and to the account of creation in the book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, those words “And God” are repeated again and again in the first chapter of Genesis – 28 times in 31 verses!  Thomas did not start the poem this way by accident. In choosing to begin “and God,” Thomas situates his poem in the world of the Bible, and specifically in the Creation account, when God has rolled up his sleeves, so to speak, to summon the world out of chaos, and put everything in order: earth, sky, water, human beings.
God is not alone in this realm. The Son is with him. In the Christian worldview, Jesus is no latecomer. As we read in the Gospel of John, “he was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be” (John 1:2-3). Christian art frequently shows creation in this way – Jesus is front and center; through him, creation happens.
In Thomas’s poem, the Father and the Son contemplate the “small globe” of the earth. The dense imagery creates complex vision of our world. We get the basic elements from the Genesis account of creation – water, dry land, light, darkness are all mentioned. But Thomas uses quite unsettling images. This world is “scorched,” “fierce,” “burned,” “crusted”—a harsh landscape. But at the same time, this world is rich in color; it has a beauty about it, as we see in the description of a river: “a bright / Serpent, a river / Uncoiled itself, radiant / With slime.” The word “Serpent” immediately tells us that this is a fallen world, suggesting the serpent of Genesis. The phrase “radiant / With slime” says it all – ugliness and beauty, seemingly inseparable.
In the second part of the poem, we glimpse the human family. “On a bare / Hill a bare tree saddened / The sky. Looking into this harsh, yet beautiful landscape, the Father and the Son see a bare tree on a bare hillside. Isn’t that a great line—“a bare tree saddened / The sky.” The bareness of the tree saddens the landscape, and yet there are people there, many of them, who reach out “thin arms” to that tree, “as though waiting / For a vanished April / To return to its crossed / Boughs.”
But this is not just a tree in a landscape. Remember where we started—“And God….” This is the world of the Bible, and the tree on the hillside evokes the cross. Thomas writes: “The son watched / Them. Let me go there, he said.” Watching the people reach out to the bare tree, the Son wants to go there, to that small globe in the hand of the Father. While Thomas avoids emotional or sentimental language, we sense that it is compassion that causes the Father to show this world to the Son, and compassion that sends the Son to that bare tree, to bring life to its dead branches, to herald the return of April.
I think this is the perfect poem to reflect on as we prepare for Holy Week. On Good Friday, the whole Church does what the people in this poem are doing: hold out our arms to the crossed branches of a tree. And with Easter, the “vanished April” does indeed return. The Church venerates the cross because it is not a dead tree, but the source of life. In the words of the liturgy of Good Friday, “We adore your Cross, O Lord, we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world.”



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