FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/13/2009
December 24, 2008 Volume 1 Issue 7
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Mark Wacome Stevick
During Advent, I find it heartening to remember the legacy of poets, prophets and saints as well as the testimony of my contemporaries. In fact, I've come to depend on them, on that great cloud of witnesses who've testified to God's strategy for redeeming humankind-through a baby, of all things.
Yes, I rely on the planed and joined sentences of John Donne, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, of R.S. Thomas, C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, of Flannery O'Connor, Frederick Buechner and John Updike-witnesses all to some aspect of a kingdom I otherwise might have missed. And Corrie ten Boom, whose name to type brings tears to my eyes. And Madeleine L'Engle and Joni Erickson Tada, David Wilkerson and Anne Lamott. With planks torn from their books have I constructed the shape of my faith; their courage and steadfastness and humility have bolstered the quiet fact of my own.
Further, I do think that men may witness to this unfailing grace without knowing it, that women may sing the eternal mercy of God unawares. I find a hymn of praise where none was intended, and expect that God does too. If we who believe in the Christ child failed to praise, surely the rocks would break out in song, the trees would clap their hands. So then the words of poets may be heard as praise when their writers thought they were looking elsewhere.
Resolved thus, one Christmas two decades ago I lifted lines from works by nine writers to compose a new poem that celebrates the nativity scene. Here, I hope, is no disservice to the originals; again, with or without knowing it, the work of these writers proves the power of the risen Word.
The writers come from diverse times and places, as did those who knelt before the Christ-child. Our praise is polyglot, an upending of Babel and the secret of Pentecost. My poem, grabbing from hither and yon, affirms that many languages make up the congregation, and many voices compose the chorus of praise:
A cold coming I have of it:
with idle hands and head I sit
In late December before the fire's gaze,
Punished by crimes of which I would be quit.
Reason, that viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived and proves weak or untrue:
(though I do not wish to wish these things)
yet I feel
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
the oxen kneel, the camels refractory;
warm-laid grave of a womb-life gray;
manger, maiden's knee;
Christ and his mother and all his hallows-"
I should be glad
(wavering in the twilight)
I should go with him in the gloom,
(wavering in the twilight between birth and dying)
Hoping it might be so.
And I thought about the Angel of the Lord-
Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers
Sticking out from under her robe,
Yelling at all of us,
"Hey! (Although I could not hope to turn again)
Unto you (Brute beauty and valor and act)
A child (Although I could not hope to turn)
Is born!" (Oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle!)
And the fire that breaks from thee then,
And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned by cheeks
And his heart moved in mine:
And the true
Joy of the long-dead child sang burning
In the sun;
And the mystery sings alive
Still in the water and singing birds.
And though the last lights off the black west went,
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with Ah! bright wings.
Make no mistake:
It was as His flesh: ours.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
But set down
This set down
It was (you may say) satisfactory,
And that has made all the difference.
The voices here speaking of the Advent are T.S. Eliot, Alan Tate, John Donne, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Beverly Robinson, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, and Robert Frost. And mine, in a sense.
Copyright 2008 by Mark Wacome Stevick @ Gordon College in Wenham, MA, U.S.A.