Christmas Poetry

by George Bailey.

Christmas Day is a Monday – will we be thinking about theology everywhere? One would hope so… whether or not by reading this blog post. I have been thinking about this for the last few weeks, and finished the final draft on Christmas Eve – but by the time it is posted at 08.30 on Christmas Day, I will be having festive breakfast ahead of the rush to get off to a celebration service.

What are we doing with all this celebrating of Christmas? Why are we generating (manufacturing?) a festival? There’s no scriptural root for Christmas, and it’s not really Jesus’ birthday, but a day to suit the needs of a distant time when Christian relations to the Pagan calendar were of vital importance – and, of course, the incarnation which the Church proclaims at Christmas is the bedrock of our grasp of reality every day, not just on 25th December. I think that what we are about though is proclaiming this good news in a focused way, allowing ourselves to hear it afresh each year, and so, we pray, every day of the coming year, and most of all seeking ways to share it. This is the point of our carol services, midnight communions, nativity plays, dinners, cards, presents, tinsel… and so on. However, the way we use and re-use these means of proclamation which have been handed on to us gives them more than just a utilitarian function – they themselves also become part of the truth and reality they point to.

There is something here akin to the relationship between the language of poetry and the reality it describes.

I have been using the book, Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley[1] which gives a poem a day during advent; these poems, and others, have featured large in my Christmas. Why is poetry so special? There has been a welcome recovery of poetry in Christian theology as a way of understanding the revelation of truth. It uses language to full effect not only to point to reality, but also itself to become new meanings and depths in our experience. Poetic language delights in multiple meanings and interpretations, ambiguities and paradoxes – these become not a hindrance but the means by which a depth of truth is encountered in poetry that is closed off to attempts at objectivity, precision and unequivocal statements of truth. Bernadette Waterman Ward, writing about Hans Urs von Balthasar’s appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetry (both Catholic champions of poetic theology) writes, “Like every other reality, a poem is unified, but multitudinous. The joy of it is in the artistry – that it has been deliberately arranged by a human being to proclaim its own richness, which the poet recognizes.”[2] Poetry is both made by humans and a site of divine revelation; a poem can be particular to the writer, and differently particular to each reader. The poet and theologian, Malcolm Guite, points out: “Poetry may be especially fitted as a medium for helping us apprehend something of the mystery embodied in that phrase ‘the Word made flesh’.”[3]

Enough of my attempt to explain it, which without using poetry is set to fail anyway – this Christmas time, why not seek Christ in one of these:

BC:AD by U.A. Fanthorpe

At the Winter Solstice by Jane Kenyon

Many poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and R. S. Thomas!

or for a contemporary performance poem – The Christmas C(h)ord by Dai Woolridge

These, and others, have led me to think that our celebration of Christmas is somehow like writing a poem – we have a language to work with in the words and practices of the tradition, and we form it into our own poem, which by the work of the Spirit intersects with the experience of Christ in the world, for ourselves and the people around us.

Last week, gathered by the doorway of a supermarket, as we sang,

“Yet, with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long,”

…we watched a teenage girl being apprehended by security guards. As they led her by the arm back into the store, she looked anxious and defeated. Later, as we sang,

“Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns; Let us our songs employ;”

…we watched two police officers stride in from the car park on their way to arrest the girl. In what way was the Saviour reigning? How could we employ our songs to address the power of this consumer society that drives the need to possess more, beyond our means, yet also places production, distribution and profit in the hands of a few wealthy companies? At Christmas we want to help those in need; and do we also need to help those weighed down with wants? Our Christmas poem opened new depths of questioning and prayer.

Last Thursday in the nursing home, a woman, for whom conversation is made difficult by memory loss and confusion, listened to Luke 2:1-7, then was handed a small wood carving of the baby in the manger. She turned it over in her hands, her eyes lit up, and she began the story of how, aged 14, she first responded to Jesus at an evangelistic tent meeting. Our Christmas poem opened new depths of Christian experience and discipleship.

What poem have you been living this Christmas? How has it been heard and experienced by you and by others? How has the Spirit revealed Christ in the rhythms and rhymes of the festival?

[1] Janet Morley, Haphazard by Starlight: A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany, London: SPCK, 2013.

[2] Bernadette Ward, “Hopkins, Scotus and von Balthasar: Philosophical Theology in Poetry,” in James Fodor (ed.), Theological Aesthetics After Von Balthasar, London: Routledge, 2016, p.74.

[3] Malcom Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, London: Routledge, 2016 (first published 2008), p2.

7 thoughts on “Christmas Poetry”

  1. Thank you George – I’vebeen to the last two RS Thomas poetry weekends in Aberdaron – but with RS you do have to be selective! My personal favourite is ‘The Chapel’
    Have you come across Godfrey Rust Love to you Fran and the family. Happy Christmas.
    PS – I’m writing this just having finished my Christmas service and having a short break in the office before saying grace for our Company @ Christmas in the church hall – your piece is very timely


  2. Thank you for this. I love poetry, both reading and (very occasionally) writing it.
    In times of trying to make sense of my deepest joy and my deepest pain, a poem has emerged.
    At this mystical, magical time of sharing and giving, I would like to share a poem here.
    Would that be acceptable?


      1. Great!
        Well the mystical, magical time of year has passed now but I am always happy to share this testimony of a mystical, magical moment which happened for me just over eight years ago and changed my life forever.

        The Call

        I was there, but not there,
        In that place where you found me.
        Surrounded by people, but so alone,
        Their laughter mocked the emptiness inside me.
        You called.
        Twice I heard you call,
        But could not see you.
        I followed your voice,
        Pushing through the human barricade,
        To find you, by the opposite wall,

        You had the face of a stranger,
        Yet I knew you from a place long forgotten,
        From a time before my time
        And an age yet to come.
        Our eyes met and my soul leaped within me,
        Like the babe in Elizabeth’s womb.
        My arms reached for you;
        I had no choice,
        Compelled towards you,
        Drawn by bonds of love.

        It might have been a sliver of a second
        Or maybe time stood still,
        As eternity beckoned
        And two souls became one, joined forever,
        Like raindrops that meet on a window pane
        To continue their journey together.
        A merging of souls, a surging of energy,
        My life finds its meaning
        And I know this is bliss,
        To belong, to be upheld, to be enfolded
        In perfect love.

        And then you were gone,
        Slipping through the doorway,
        Not even looking back.
        You knew I would be there, right behind you,
        Following, searching, yearning,
        Stepping out from my darkness
        And into your glorious light ….

        ….where you wait for me still,
        Never more than a whisper away
        But, achingly, just out of sight.

        Yvonne Williams


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