My good friend Sue Schmidt sent me the following poem to kick off this first Sunday in Advent. While we often associate Advent with brightly lit shopping malls and Christmas cheer, recent Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reminds us that the Christmas promise comes at the darkest time of the year and cannot be taken for granted. In earlier times before the days of central heating, the onset of winter anticipated privation and hunger. One never knew which family members would make it through to the spring.
Note how, in his poem, Williams uses violent verbs such as “flayed,” “choking,” and “writhes.” It is a struggle to hold on to hope in the dark season as we are stripped bare, beaten down, folded into ourselves. In the final stanza Williams captures our agonies by echoing the most famous line from Tennyson’s masterpiece of grief In Memoriam, a poem I am teaching this coming week:
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
The miracle of Christmas, the unexpected reversal, is that to comfort His/Her crying children, God takes the form of ultimate vulnerability. “He will come like child.”
For a deeper dive into the poem, check out this wonderful meditation by Michael Sandgrove, Dean of Durham in northeastern England. Again, thanks to Sue for finding it.
By Rowan Williams
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.