The poetry of past and present provides a structure to enrich the season of preparation.
About the author: Lauren Bobbitt has a master’s degree in English literature from Marquette University.
This is my first Christmas ever without the structure of an academic schedule, and somehow it feels like Christmas shouldn’t come without the end-of-semester crucible. In its absence, I need to provide some other kind of structure for myself, to be sure that I am prepared for the coming of Christ. I am sure that many of you are more diligent (and more timely) in personally observing Advent than I am, but if perhaps you, too, would appreciate something to enrich your other rituals, I thought I would offer to you the Advent and Christmas poems that I will be using daily during this season. Some date back hundreds of years and others are contemporary, but all, I trust, provide substance and beauty to deepen my, and perhaps your, contemplation of the magnificent mystery of the Incarnation.
As you begin your Christmas preparations and celebrations, may you rejoice in both the ordinary and the extraordinary as the magnificent breaks into the mundane and the Word becomes flesh. And may you be haunted by the strains from another world that keep us longing for its coming…
December 23: O Rex Gentium (Malcolm Guite)
For today, another of Malcolm Guite’s Advent sonnets, based on ancient Latin antiphons. This is the final sonnet in his series, celebrating the Christ child as King, contrasting the glory of His kingliness with the commonness of human form. As you reflect, may you embrace your own humanness and yield to the shaping hand of the One who deemed our “clay” not too base for Himself…
Here is the Latin Antiphon that inspired Guite’s poem:
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one, Come and save the human race,which you fashioned from clay
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.
December 22: Journey of the Magi (T.S. Eliot)
There is so much depth in this poetic narrative (like the images in the second stanza, rich with allusions to the gospels). May your exploration of it help you welcome death to the things that have passed and life in the things that have come through Christ’s birth…
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
December 21: A Poem for Christmas (Joseph Brodsky, translated from Russian by Seamus Heaney)
May your imagination richly dwell within the mystery of the Incarnation in all its magnitude and mundaneness…
Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:
use the cracks in the floor to feel the cold.
Use crockery in order to feel the hunger.
And to feel the desert – but the desert is everywhere.
Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,
the fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;
and imagine, as you towel your face in the towel’s folds,
the bundled up Infant. And Mary and Joseph.
Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession
as they make for the cave, or rather three beams closing in
and in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;
(but in the cerulean thickening over the Infant
no bell and no echo of bell: He hasn’t earned it yet.)
Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
immensely in distance, recognising Himself in the Son,
of Man: homeless, going out to Himself in a homeless one.
December 20: Gloria in Profundis (G.K. Chesterton)
Somehow with Chesterton, one feels as if there is nothing else to say…and so I shall only only say: may you be profoundly met by the glory of God…
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
December 19: Bethlehem (Charles Williams)
Wherever your journey takes you this season, may you find your true home and true joy in the stable in Bethlehem…
‘Let us go a journey,’
Quoth my soul to my mind,
‘Past the plains of darkness
Is a house to find
Where for my thirsting
I shall have my fill,
And from my torment
I shall be still.’
‘Let us go a journey,’
Quoth my mind to my heart,
‘Past the hills of questing,
By our ghostly art,
We shall see the high worlds,
Holy and clear,
Moving in their order
Without hate or fear.’
‘Let us go a journey,’
Quoth my heart to my soul,
‘I shall thrive never
On the world’s dole.
Past the streams of cleansing
Shall a house be found
Where the peace and healing
For my aching wound.’
By the streams of cleansing,
By the hill of quest,
By the plains of darkness,
They came to their rest.
As the kings of Asia,
They went to a far land;
As the early shepherds,
They found it close at hand.
When they saw Saint Joseph
By their ghostly art,
‘Forget not thy clients,
Brother’, quoth my heart,
When they saw Our Lady
In her place assigned,
‘Forget not thy clients,
Mother’, quoth my mind.
But my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored:
‘O my Joy,’ she sighed to it,
She wept, ‘O my Lord!’
December 18: A Song for Simeon (T.S. Eliot)
Simeon’s Prayer – Luke 2:29-32
“Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A Lightof revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.
December 17: The Glory (Madeleine L’Engle)
May you abide in the truth that the timing and giving, the story and glory of the Incarnation, are God’s…offered to us here in hereafter…
Without any rhyme
without any reason
my heart lifts to light
in this bleak season
Believer and wanderer
caught by salvation
stumbler and blunderer
In this cold blight
where marrow is frozen
it is God’s time
my heart has chosen
In paradox and story
parable and laughter
find I the glory
here in hereafter
December 16: Poem for a Christmas Broadcast (Anne Barbara Ridler)
Anne Barbara Ridler was a poet and editor on the edge of the Inklings, and also worked closely with T.S. Eliot. May her poem move you to consider what you bring before the infant King…
Woman s Voice
Perhaps you find the angel most improbable?
It spoke to men asleep, their minds ajar
For once to admit the entrance of a stranger.
Few have heard voices, but all have made a journey:
The mind moves, desiring dedication,
Desiring to lay its gifts, as a dog its bone,
At the feet of the first creation. ‘Take it or leave it’
Says pride, ‘You made it; You must bear the blame.’
But secretly the heart ‘O make it good.’
‘Either God acts in vain, or this is God.’
Melchior brings gold. O teach me to give,
For this was infancy’s first love:
Its first possession; its adult passion
O new creation
Take my treasure and make me free.
Caspar, incense: all that is strange,
Oblique, projected beyond the range
Of the First Person. Such mediation
O new creation
Take, that we dare the direct sight.
Death is a strong wish. Balthasar
Brings his desire in a gift of myrrh ;
Seeking perfection in pain and cessation
O new creation
Die for me, make me desire to live.
Mary, who nourished glory on human kindness
By springs of power hidden from the mind,
Here is our small self-knowledge, now
Make it acceptable, or teach us how.
He will accept it, never fear,
For his audacity is my despair.
O do not give what he should not bear.
His boldness is beyond belief,
His threats, his lightnings, his short grief.
Is it divine or mortal confidence?
Mortal ignorance, godlike innocence.
Brazen, he takes love as a right;
He knows to demand is to give delight.
Youngling, here we offer love
What have we to offer but love?
And what is our love? Greed and despair.
O do not take what you should not bear,
Or tainted love by true convince:
Let us not harm you, helpless Prince.
Sin is the chance of mercy;
Then even sin contrives your greater glory.
December 15: The Nativity (C.S. Lewis)
May even the most mundane matters, like the nativity animals, be ripe for your reflection and sanctification this season…
Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!
December 14: The House of Christmas (G.K. Chesterton)
As you celebrate in your own homes this Christmas, may your heart’s deepest longings for Home be met at the manger and may you abide with Christ in the place where He has made His home – within you…
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost—how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wife’s tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
December 13: Christmas (George Mackay Brown)
May the striking imagery and contrasts of this poem help you truly know the deep need for the Life and Light to come…
‘Toll requiem’, said sun to earth,
As the grass got thin.
The star-wheel went, all nails and thorns,
Over mill and kirk and inn.
The old sun died. The widowed earth
Tolled a black bell.
‘Our King will return’, said root to bone,
To the skeleton tree on the hill.
At midnight, an ox and an ass,
Between lantern and star
Cried, Gloria…Lux in tenebris…
In a wintered byre.
December 12: The Disarming Child (Charlie Lowell)
As the Christ Child comes to you this season, may you be met afresh by His beautifully unsettling presence and be given by Him what you need – whether sorrow or joy – to be quickened into newness of life…
Helpless and human
Diety in the dirt,
Spirit married with flesh
We couldn’t make it to you,
But you come to us.
You always come to us.
In our stubbornness and desire,
Entitlement and shame
Remind us that we need you,
Merge your untamed Spirit with our flesh.
We try to forget those
Years of wandering.
Shackles and masters,
An eternity of doubting
And still, you come to us.
A divine intrusion
Through our scheming and chaos-
Coats of armor, angels and armies.
Do some wrecking here,
And gently come to us.
Disturb us this day
Through sorrow and through dancing,
The bliss of joy and sting of death
Past hands that would threaten and tear,
You come to us extravagantly.
From your manger lowly,
Mighty and mysterious
You come to us, Seed of Heaven
Spirit wed with flesh,
These broken hearts to mend.
December 11: Vicit Agnus Noster (Michael Card)
Not all singers do I consider true poets, but Michael Card I most certainly do. This song weaves Old Testament, New Testament, and church liturgy together to fix our meditation on our God of faithfulness and paradox. May your heart be firmly rooted in this:
Vicit agnus noster eum sequamur…”Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow Him.”
Noster eum sequamur
Did Abraham himself not say
God would provide a lamb
To take instead the punishment
That should belong to man
And so to humble shepherds
Was His glory first revealed
And with His birth a covenant
Made long ago was sealed
Noster eum sequamur
Out of His dark obscurity
The Light of God has shone
And through the meekness of the Lamb
God’s strength would be made known
The just and gentle Promised One
Would triumph o’er the fall
And conquer by His own defeat
And win by losing all.
If you would like to hear a recording of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVS0Ex4uvyo
December 10: O Emmanuel (Malcolm Guite)
A good friend recently pointed me to a collection of contemporary Advent sonnets by Malcolm Guite, based on ancient Advent liturgy. I am delighting in Guite’s profound reflections that rework the forms of the past – both liturgical and literary (i.e. the sonnet) – to join them with a contemporary voice proclaiming truths that transcend past, present, and future. May you find the same richness in these words that magnify the Word.
On his blog, Guite explains the foundation of his project: “In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of prayng seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah…I have responded to these seven “Great O” Antiphons, as they are called, with seven sonnets, revoicing them for our own age now, but preserving the heart of each…” (http://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/o-adonai-my-second-advent-reflection-and-sonnet/)
Here is the English translation of the Latin Antiphon that inspired the following poem:
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
December 9: Into the Darkest Hour (Madeleine L’Engle)
However dark the world may seem to you this advent season, may you draw hope from the wonderful truth of Immanuel -God with us – whose presence is most evident when signs of its absence are most keenly felt…
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.
December 8: Christmas Dream (Eugene Peterson)
May the anticipation in your Advent preparations and the fullness of your Christmas celebration carry you throughout the year and make you always at home with grace…
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”
Amiably at home with virtue and evil –
The righteousness of Joseph and Herod’s
Wickedness – I’m ever and always a stranger to grace.
I need this annual angel visitation.
– this sudden drive by dream into reality –
to know the virgin conceives and God is with us.
The dream powers its way through winter weather
and gives me vision to see the Jesus gift.
Light from the dream lasts a year. Through
Equinox and solstice I am given twelve months
Of daylight by which to build the crèche where my
Redeemer lives. The fetus of praise grows
deep in my spirit. As autumn wanes I count
the days until I bear the dream again.
December 7: Nativity (John Donne)
May your reflection on this 17th century sonnet move you to awe at the paradoxes of the Incarnation and the vastness once contained within a manger…
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
December 6: Mary’s Songs
May these two selections together round out your contemplation of the Incarnation from the perspective of the one who carried the Infinite in her womb…
by Luci Shaw
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest …
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by doves’ voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
The Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55
My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.
December 5: A Christmas Carol for 1862: The Year of the Trouble in Lancashire (George MacDonald)
In 1862 the Lancashire region in northern England was plagued by a severe depression and America strained under the burden of civil war. The loss of American cotton imports to the Lancashire region initiated a Cotton Famine that created widespread unemployment and deprivation for rich and poor alike. In a time perhaps not so very unlike our own, George MacDonald penned this poem, reminding us that Christ the child is also Christ the King, whose rule leaves no part of life untouched. May His coming be not only in your heart this season but but also for a country and world in great need…
The skies are pale, the trees are stiff,
The earth is dull and old;
The frost is glittering as if
The very sun were cold.
And hunger fell is joined with frost,
To make men thin and wan:
Come, babe, from heaven, or we are lost;
Be born, O child of man.
The children cry, the women shake,
The strong men stare about;
They sleep when they should be awake,
They wake ere night is out.
For they have lost their heritage—
No sweat is on their brow:
Come, babe, and bring them work and wage;
Be born, and save us now.
Across the sea, beyond our sight,
Roars on the fierce debate;
The men go down in bloody fight,
The women weep and hate;
And in the right be which that may,
Surely the strife is long!
Come, son of man, thy righteous way,
And right will have no wrong.
Good men speak lies against thine own—
Tongue quick, and hearing slow;
They will not let thee walk alone,
And think to serve thee so:
If they the children’s freedom saw
In thee, the children’s king,
They would be still with holy awe,
Or only speak to sing.
Some neither lie nor starve nor fight,
Nor yet the poor deny;
But in their hearts all is not right,—
They often sit and sigh.
We need thee every day and hour,
In sunshine and in snow:
Child-king, we pray with all our power—
Be born, and save us so.
We are but men and women, Lord;
Thou art a gracious child!
O fill our hearts, and heap our board,
Pray thee—the winter’s wild!
The sky is sad, the trees are bare,
Hunger and hate about:
Come, child, and ill deeds and ill fare
Will soon be driven out.
December 4: Noel (Anne Porter)
When snow is shaken
From the balsalm trees
And they’re cut down
And brought into our houses
When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows
We hear and sing
The customary carols
They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common
But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet’s message
Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices
They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.
December 3: First Coming (Madeleine L’Engle)
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!.