Christopher Trundle on John Keble’s poetry and the subtleties of the liturgical year

Foe of mankind! too bold thy race: Thou runn’st at such a reckless pace, Thine own dire work thou surely wilt confound: ’Twas but one little drop of sin We saw this morning enter in, And lo! at eventide the world is drown’d.

John Keble, Sexagesima Sunday

One of the most popular devotional books of the nineteenth century was John Keble’s The Christian Year, a collection of poems for each Sunday and Holy Day of the liturgical year. It was published anonymously in 1827 and became an immediate success. Remarkably, despite the large number of copies sold and editions made, the book’s popularity did not continue into the twentieth century.

Keble’s noble aim, though, had been to unite the thoughts of the reader to the themes of each feast as found in the Prayer Book’s liturgy and lectionary. Standing within the fine tradition of Anglican devotional literature, this liturgical companion drew public and private prayer together, clearly placing the liturgy of the Church and its Calendar at the heart of individuals’ prayer lives.

A change in mood

The stanza above, part of a reflection on mankind’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, speaks of the fragility of humanity in the face of sin. The poem draws on the Gospel appointed for Sexagesima Sunday in the Prayer Book, namely the Parable of the Sower.

One of the sad consequences of liturgical reform is the disappearance of the three Sundays before Lent named Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. After the forty days of Christmas there is, in the Prayer Book at least, a change in mood as we begin to look towards Lent and the Passion. Notably, these Sundays were retained after the Reformation in common with the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and the rites of the Eastern Churches.

The Prayer Book Collects appointed for these weeks suggest this change of focus as we move from the celebration of the outward manifestation of Christ to the world to the inward examination of our own hearts and souls. This Lenten consideration of our motives and actions is aptly shown in the Book of Common Prayer Collect for Quinquagesima:

‘O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.’

This practice of observing a time of pre-Lent preparation is thought to have begun as a means of observing the full number of fasting days (Sundays and feast days not being included in the Lenten observance).

A rich source

It would, of course, be easy to say that these names are rather too old-fashioned and that the modern Roman practice of reverting to Ordinary Time and green is much clearer and simpler. This, however, lacks a great deal of the richness of our ancient liturgical inheritance and, indeed, that of the Church Universal.

As Keble understood, the subtleties of the liturgical year are a rich source of prayer and devotion. As we conclude our celebration of the Incarnation, let us begin to look forward to the completion of the work of our salvation.

Therefore in sight of man bereft The happy garden still was left, The fiery sword that guarded shew’d it too; Turning all ways, the world to teach, That though as yet beyond our reach, Still in its place the tree of life and glory grew.

John Keble, Sexagesima Sunday