As well as being the day when my true love sent me three French hens, the third day of Christmas traditionally remembers St John the Evangelist, who contrasts with Stephen the martyr for being the only one of the apostles not be martyred. He also saw the glories ahead revealed to him when imprisoned for following Jesus, and was perhaps the best theologian of the Incarnation in the New Testament. Today’s poem takes as its inspiration an old Gregorian chant for the Feast of St John, as well as the reading for the day, 1 John 1:1-4.
On the Lord’s Day, in rapture,
the beloved disciple
beheld Him in glory
who once walked beside Him.
And did he recognise Him,
that beloved disciple?
So changed into glory
was this one like a brother.
Now a glorious saviour,
that disciple’s Beloved
called the prisoned to rapture,
in renewing of all things.
Did he think of the meals shared,
that beloved disciple?
Did he think of the dust and
the waters of washing?
Remember the glories,
O beloved disciples,
When walking where Christ trod,
When fading, no rapture.
the eyes that beheld Him.
Await His swift coming;
tune ears to His feet.
So now: as we wait in rapt expectancy,
will we unwrap our dreams? Our loves?
Or unravel with the pressure,
the hallowed table proving to be full of holes.
When the day and its gestures disappoint,
what will tell us, You matter?
Frantic to complete the list,
we quickly pass the simple scene:
a teenage mother tending her child,
tired from the journey to the in-laws’ town.
Too pressed for time with time-pressing matters,
we miss the divine entrance into our smelly matter.
Our lunchtime squabbles and fights over gifts
are themselves the stage He chose to walk.
The chance to be changed lies within rudest details:
a makeshift crib; soil and straw;
an angry heart with limited room.
One of the great mysteries and wonders that we can be reflecting on this Advent season is the Incarnation: the mystery that the God of the universe would become a human, even a defenceless baby. To explore this mystery, Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who loves a poor and humble girl and wants her to be lifted by his love, not always ashamed of the difference between them. Here is a slightly playful, poetic translation of the story. You can find fuller, more accurate renditions of it in abundance online, but they often leave out the playfulness of Kierkegaard’s style. So here is my offering, for what it is worth. May it give some food for thought this advent.
You ask me how God might be teacher
you ask how His love might drive Him to teach.
You ask how His Love could love over vast distance
as divides all low learners from this teacher of Love?
Well, once upon a time, a king loved a maiden –
No, wait! Is this kids’ stuff?
A fairy tale? Where
is the systematic doctrine?
Well, so thought old Athens, when Socrates spoke
of food, and drink, and doctors, and trifles;
I wish I could only speak of such trifles,
for we all, from birth, understand food and drink
(and the need to see doctors)
and the high ways of kings are so often removed
from the eating and drinking of mere men.
But let us move on; we mustn’t get stuck.
A king loved a maiden; let’s leave it like that.
And this king, unlike poets, was not tied up tight
with the “wisdom” that hampers clear-headedness; he
loved that low maiden (this much we’ve seen),
and he loved her without the High Rule of a king.
His courtiers said, What a favour the king
will bestow on the low one! These words made him sick.
They drove him to fury; that wasn’t his love.
He would love her, this maiden,
such that she’d never see
a high, lofty patron,
a detached, distant king.
Impossible! say the king’s courtiers. You
are the king! Overshadow her
with your king’s grandeur!
Make her feel lowly! Unworthy! You’re king!
How can Love straddle
the high and low yet
not overshadow the low into their grave?
Love must become
like the lowly it loves.
The teacher must be like the student;
must make Himself low
like the maiden.
(Adapted and translated from Søren Kierkegaard, “God as Teacher and Saviour (Guden som Lærer og Frelser)”, from Philosophical Fragments (Philosophiske Smuler), http://sks.dk/ps/txt.xml)
He comes near, able to touch, to be touched,
and be wounded, to kiss and to be kissed:
the grateful kiss, the sleepy child dismiss-
ing himself to sleep; the mother’s kiss, a smudge
on freshly-bathed cheek; the plotter’s grudge
expressed in the curl of doubled lips,
the final, false farewell, the fatal tryst.
He comes to feel the touch of friend and judge.
He comes to raise His hand to touch the world,
to put together Jacob’s broken hip,
to be the salve on Adam’s missing rib,
to gather in His family, unfurled,
and show that God’s love isn’t scared to feel
the pain of touch to make all new, to heal.
…the astonishment of the Angels: for it is not in them (pure spirits), but in the human race, that God unites himself, and the Son of God incarnate “is not ashamed to call us his brothers.”
Flames of fire, yet only servants. They long
to look into what we hold as child:
God-made-flesh. Not all the heavenly throng
are called “brothers”, but we are: reconciled,
dust transformed, while they only herald.
Do they marvel, or rival? One envied,
and fell beneath us. Unparalleled,
the Son chooses depths, yet uplifts, died
yet gives life. Let the angels adore Him;
let them fall before His throne ablaze in
the glory of Him and Father Elohim.
Yet how should something so glorious begin
so small, so timid? No fire, no thunder,
just angels and shepherds gazing in wonder.
It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth.
(Marilynne Robinson, Lila)
Our minds jump too easily: from cradle
to grave – a Cross upon a hill. And yes,
this is where it tends. Yet first the stable
is where God, first time in wounded ages,
touches directly the things of earth.
Then He will walk, as He will tell others: Rise and walk. He will learn life’s shape, the girth,
as we all learn, by taste and touch and years.
Lullabies do no justice to this. It
fragments and fractures. Yet it also meets
where deepest, frailest longings fail to fit
the structure of existence, gives hands and feet
to all that we have heard yet have not seen,
and binds together every break that’s been.
…Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
I hold You; I bore You. Yet You cannot
be held by me. The story told from first
honours me but exalts You more: a dot
at the start, impossibly small, yet burst-
ing with life. How could this all be? I did
not make it so. I held You, I hold You,
yet Glory made You. I grew You inside,
yet You grew me. Your breath shows it is true:
so dependent, so in need of me.
Can I hold my saviour so? Can I birth
the world’s one hope, like fruit from ungrown tree?
Can my maker grow from this virgin earth?
All things out of nothing He grows, and so
my nothing He has given mother-glow.
…without the First-born no-one is able to approach Being, for he alone is capable of it.
(Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns of the Nativity)
Do we forget who we are?
Clamouring for prizes, for profit, for land,
The spaces we contest constrain us.
Who was Herod when he feared a baby?
Who was the baby when he taught Herod truth?
Let us bring right gifts to the right honoured guest;
Let life know itself in the truest Light.
Vaster than under heavens, grander than all ego,
True being lies helpless among cattle.