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.
Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension? Christ physically ascended on our behalf, just as he came down to earth physically on our account, and he is now advocating for us in the presence of his Father, preparing a place for us, and also sends us his Spirit. (New City Catechism)
Not waiting in vain,
men and women thirsting at a cloudless sky,
nor farmers ploughing a desert.
hiding behind a veil of hands
or the clenched-fisted ones in the corner.
No metaphor sates us:
only a body will do. Only
face-to-face, Father to Son,
full sight in place of dim mirrors.
And so a body grows,
and for a body, a home with walls
solid to the touch, but never closed,
a welcome that has arms,
a priest who bears scars,
a love decked with nails,
risen, no fall.
Jeffrey Smart painted this dying day:
burnt orange in floating smokestack steam,
needle-lights stretching in fluorescent dream,
the sojourn of light sinking in silent sway.
Daytime paints its canopy away
and minutes pass in inches as we glean
each moment, weigh each instant gram by gram.
Apologies buy flowers; much to say,
yet time is rare. I wish that now could be
a canvas on a wall that we could share.
I cross the bridge; I mount the street of bells.
Ascend, descend; the sound within us swells,
and expectation greets the seated air.
No movement; move. I gather you to me.
Well, poems have been few and far between at The Consolations of Writing recently, mostly because – I must admit – I’ve been slightly distracted by my recent engagement to an absolutely wonderful girl, Hannah. This week I have distractions of another kind: a week-long, short-term mission in my own city, Melbourne. Today’s poem is a reflection on what it means to open ourselves in Christ-like love to the stranger in our home.
Open my hands:
You have opened Your hands;
You had nails scar Your hands.
Open my fists:
You have unclenched Your fists;
You have satisfied wrath.
Open my heart:
You have sword-pierced Your heart;
You have loved with Your scars.
Open fists, hands and heart:
Eight years ago today, I began writing poetry. It was a beautiful spring day – the promise of things to come. But, as is so often the case at the end of a Melbourne winter, the spring was fragile. Cool weather could return at any moment and snap up the new growth. I was about to begin teaching and had recently emerged from a bad relationship; life was hopeful. Yet it seemed to me it could so easily fail. I turned to poetry to express this feeling and never looked back.
Today is another beautiful spring day. Life has brought more disappointment and more joy than I could have known. My hope is quieter, my heart more still and my poetry is – I hope – a bit better. But God is the same as He has always been.
Hope settles as wind whistles in fresh leaves;
August grins in unexpected warmth, and though
Next week may bring cold worse than before,
New days are sure to prosper in His plan.
As we await the joys, the sun, the cold,
Hope settles and the wind whistles today.
Yesterday I posted a poem based on the beautiful Psalm 131. It is one of the shortest psalms in the Bible, yet one which I have found particularly comforting at times of emotional and psychological distress. Today I am posting a recording I have made of a new musical setting of Isaac Watts’ hymn based on the same psalm. Here are the words to Watts’ hymn so that you can read them along with the recording. May it be a reminder of the stillness that we can have in the arms of an infinitely loving God.
Is there ambition in my heart?.
Search, gracious God, and see;
Or do I act a haughty part?
Lord, I appeal to thee.
I charge my thoughts, be humble still,
And all my carriage mild,
Content, my Father, with thy will,
And quiet as a child.
The patient soul, the lowly mind,
Shall have a large reward:
Let saints in sorrow lie resigned,
And trust a faithful Lord.