On this Fourth Day of Christmas—the Feast of the Holy Innocents—I’ve been re-reading and thinking about the two poems I posted a few days ago: John Betjeman’s “Christmas” (posted when I got home from Midnight Mass at about 1:30 on Christmas morning) and Robert Southwell’s “The Nativity of Christ” (posted once the shreds of wrapping paper had settled and the necessary toy-assembling was done on Christmas day). They are two of my favorite Christmas poems. Though very different in style, content, and context, they approach the Incarnation from the same perspective. Betjeman and Southwell both look upon the Birth of Christ as “a great and mighty wonder,” as the carol puts it—a surprising, paradoxical, unexpected thing that, in spite of all appearances, has earth-shaking significance.
I love the way that Betjeman begins with (and never really leaves) “the sweet and silly Christmas things.” The first five stanzas of the poem are entirely devoted to the stuff of a secular Christmas: cheerful pubs, bright bunting in the town hall, shops “strung with silver bells and flowers.” Even the decorating of the village church in the second stanza is really just a part of general Christmas merriment (rather than some special expression of spiritual devotion). It’s all done “So that the villagers can say / ‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.”
And all of this is good. Betjeman surveys these things fondly, with just a hint of longing and a hint of irony. The sentimental, slightly soggy stuff of Christmas isn’t bad. Families coming together (even “girls in slacks…and oafish louts”) and the excitement of children and the tinsel-trappings of the season: these are all good things.
But they are not the Good Thing. Whenever I read this poem, I imagine someone at a warm, cheerful holiday party. Standing with a glass of eggnog in his hand, he’s just finished a light and friendly conversation with an amiable acquaintance. Now he is, perhaps only for a brief moment, alone in the midst of a party overflowing with all “the sweet and silly Christmas things” cherished by our culture. Suddenly, in the sixth stanza, a question rises in his brain: “And is it true?”
What occasions that question? Maybe my imaginary partygoer glimpses a creche hidden under the Christmas tree. Maybe there’s a card on the mantle with some beautiful depiction of Mary and Joseph and the baby on it. In the third line of the sixth stanza, Betjeman himself connects the question with a “stained-glass window’s hue.” Perhaps the poem’s speaker has just escaped a brightly decorated street of shops by dropping into an empty church. Whatever the source or inspiration, in the sixth stanza the question of the Incarnation suddenly breaks into the poem.
And that is precisely how it must be. My post in response to the Rev’d John Ohmer’s thoughts on Advent is predicated on an understanding of Christmas as something abrupt and unexpected. The Feast of the Nativity—the Church’s celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation—can never be simply an extension of the good things of “the holiday season” as the secular world keeps it. Christ’s birth cuts at an angle to all the things of this earth: all of our bad things, and all of our good things—all of our sad things, and all of our happy things. Christmas interrupts us, just as surely as a wondering thought can steal upon a person at a party, or an unexpected encounter with a piece of art (a stained-glass window, a painting, a statue, or a great work of music) can raise unanticipated questions in the soul.
“And is it true?” Betjeman’s question, with a touch of modern embarrassment and slight skepticism, does not grow out of the ordinary stuff of Christmas. Rather, it engages with astonishing news: news that changes everything. Betjeman begins with all the good things this world affords, which really are abundant at Christmastime. But he ends by turning from them to the pearl of great price—the treasure hidden in the field—the “Baby in an ox’s stall”—and realizes that nothing else “can with this single truth compare.”
Southwell, on the other hand, begins in the stable. With the great Biblical word of announcement—Behold!—Southwell dives right into the paradox of Christ’s birth: “The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.” What a delightful summary of John 1.10: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him.” The entirety of the first stanza is given over to the wonderful impossibility of the Incarnation: the Word of God—“the old of years”, “Eternal life”, “the mirth of heaven”, “might”, and “force”—lies newborn in a manger—“dumb”, weeping, “feeble”, creeping.
But what is the point of all this paradox? It is astonishing, but why does it matter? Southwell tackles that question in the second stanza with a series of imperatives: “O dying souls! behold your living spring! / O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!” Southwell’s list of paradoxes in the first stanza speaks directly to our “dying souls”, “dazzled eyes”, “dull ears”, and “heavy hearts” in the second.
And the greatest paradox of all, the paradox behind all of Southwell’s clever paradoxes, is that the gift of the Incarnate Christ—a gift that reveals God in a new and surprising way—transforms not God, but us. God is not lessened or changed by the Nativity of Christ. But by “assumption of the Manhood by God,” humankind is renewed and restored. Receiving God’s gift to us makes us what we were always intended to be: God’s gift to himself.
Southwell’s final stanza surveys the cosmos from the edge of the manger. He tells the story of Genesis 3 in just one line: “Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast.” So we stand: reduced, diminished, unmanned (in a different sense from the usual use of that word). And how does God address our alteration and loss? By coming down to meet us in our deepest depths: “Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh; / Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d, / As hay the brutest sinner to refresh.” If men and women have, by the Fall, been made beasts, then God’s solution to this dilemma is to become the food of beasts: literally to lie in the feeding trough of cattle.
“Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew, / Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!”