At the shops and in the street,
We look at faces, look at feet,
Breathing quickly as we pass,
Lest the germs should get to us.
Seeking family on a screen,
Craving you and us and we.
What will each tomorrow bring?
(Can we handle one more thing?)
In this and each new instance,
Can we love, safe from a distance?
Hiding within my son's clothes,
it lay unseen until bedtime when
it scurried out from his sleeve, explaining
his tears through dinner and
the nick on his wrist spotted
only moments before.
It was not the night to visit Emergency.
Wind and rain buffeted the drive, as
unidentified spider in jar beside me,
I punctuated my frantic breaths with
comma prayers and apostrophe thoughts
of the worst that could happen
in a waiting room at night.
Arriving to warnings plastered on doors,
I tried not to gawk at the three who were kept
behind a sealed door, faces masked,
breathing an obvious chore.
And while we waited, my son
calm, no swelling, spider determined
to see out the night, I pondered
risking it and going home,
but stayed instead, and tried to love
my neighbour from a distance,
sharing smiles that said,
"We're in this together," while mind returned
again, again to the microbes that may,
may not circle the air, and tried not to fear
the pestilence stalking the night, or the day
that I may become one others fear.
I stubbed my toe on a London bus;
it stood in the doorway, just under us.
And by the door a bright Tonka truck
lay just where an unsuspecting limb got stuck.
And in the night a train might stray
far from its tracks into my way;
and you, dear you, might show up right
when I would rather turn in for the night
yet love is seldom a smooth affair,
and ground is better than ideal air.
True, I’d prefer to not stub my toes,
but love must bleed; that’s the way it goes.
Today, as well as the day for the year’s biggest sales, is also Boxing Day and, as the mysterious carol “Good King Wenceslas” should remind us, St Stephen’s Day. Most likely the Stephen commemorated today was the one martyred in the Acts of the Apostles, so one tradition of today is to sing carols that remind us of his faith. It’s also a day traditionally not about spending but of giving: boxing up gifts to give to the poor, hence the name “Boxing Day”. Today’s poem, for the second day of Christmas, draws together these themes, via an old St Stephen’s Day carol of indeterminate age, played beautifully in this version.
Never Faint Nor Fear
The tree still stands, the presents gone;
They’re boxed and put away.
We rest our feet and pick at food
Left over from yesterday.
Saint Václav and his squire walk
Through snow and in Christ’s footsteps;
We follow signs instead that tell
Of bargains and tax offsets.
If Stephen sat amongst us here,
He’d wonder at our tinsel.
The red, perhaps, foreshadows blood?
So sing the old-time minstrels.
O never faint, and never fear,
Unless your debt be looming.
Pay back your credit card and watch
The lowly rose e’er blooming.
The child soon will mount the cross;
How well St Stephen knew this.
Yet do not dwell so long on that,
Lest it should ruin Christmas.
Instead, you might behold the sight:
The Son of Man is shining.
He climbed the tree, for you, for me,
In sin and error pining.
It is not yours to climb, and yet
The grace may prove contagious.
Let Christmas drive you out in storms
With love and gifts outrageous.
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 and saviour; 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? Don’t patronise with tales… 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; the king 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)