On Thursday morning, in company with many around the world, I was in my kitchen baking Christmas treats and listening to the Festival of Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. This morning’s gospel lesson was already on my mind as I heard the Provost of the College get up to read the ninth lesson and announce,
St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation,
and I said to my pastry dough, yeah, right, because if this is St John unfolding the great mystery, I would love to see him doing origami.
The problem is that the Incarnation – the birth of God in the person of Jesus – is a great mystery. We can approach it through the language of story and legend, miraculous conception and angelic intervention, stables and shepherds and the whole cast of characters that orient us to the fact that we are hearing a story of things beyond our understanding. We can use the language of poetry – light, life, the Word which is with the God and which is God – to approach the great mystery, but hardly to explain it. Poetry and story do not show their work; they rely on our imagination to engage with the words, with the Word, to approach their truth with some semblance of love and understanding. Poetry and story reach out, invite us to respond. The Word speaks, the light shines in the darkness, and we are invited to hear, and to see.
The twentieth-century Welsh priest and poet, R.S. Thomas, said in an interview once,
“Poetry is religion, religion is poetry. The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet … when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity, and when one discusses Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects. The core of both [is] imagination as far as I’m concerned.”
And so the Gospel of John invites us to look into the manger in the stable and imagine that the soul of the child lying in its birth scent, newly breathing, only just seen; that this child is as ancient as God; that this child was born today and before the birth of time itself. That this child has lived not only with God, but within God, for as long as God has been alive; for as long as God has been God.
And for as long as this infant has been God, he is born only just now as the life of the world; the world at whose creation he was the witness and Word and welcome; because although he is beyond time, we are not, and he will not keep himself separate from us, in any aspect; in life, in death, in light and in darkness, he will be with us, as he was from the beginning, the unseen born as the most beloved sight, the newborn child of God and of Mary.
John Keble, in nineteenth-century Oxford, remarked that,
“There is everywhere a tendency to make the things we see represent the things we do not see, to invent or remark mutual associations between them, to call the one sort by the names of the other,”
so that we find in Jesus the face of God, and glory, as of the only son of a father, full of grace and truth; and in his mortal life we find the eternal life of the Creator and Sustainer of the life that we know, caught between heaven and earth, tangled in our knowledge of finitude and the possibility of transcendence.
“so may it not be affirmed that [Christ] condescends in like manner to have a Poetry of His own, a set of holy and divine associations and meanings, wherewith it is His will to invest all material things?”
for as much as Jesus brings the birth of God into our messy and stable-muck-filled world, so through being a part of the mess, he invests it with the order of God, and redeems its loss and lack of love to the life that God intended for it. He invests each person with the holy and divine association of the image of God.
Jesus is specific to history; Jesus is beyond time, so that he can imbue all of history with that association.
So that we can see his redeeming work in the Exodus, in the provision of Abraham’s sacrificial ram. So that we can see his crucifixion in the camps, in the genocide, in the south side streets. So that we can see his face in the Syrian refugee, running from war and terror, the child caught up by his parents in the night and removed to a foreign land. So that we can see his blood in the five-month-old baby caught in the crossfire in a car seat in Cleveland. So that we can read his rebellion in the face of the oppressed resisting the Romans, resisting the power of privilege. So that we can speak his healing into the prayers of the suffering, the sick, the dying. So that we can read his resurrection over the graves of the dead, and proclaim his life, which was beyond time, and which reached into our own time, which was created by him, with him, in him.
There is no escape for the Incarnate God from poetry and story. He has submitted Godself willingly to our limitations of language; the ambiguity of poetry, and the symbols and signs of the story. Even our science embraces elegance, the representation of what is unseen in the language of that which is seen. There is no way, no language, nothing within the scope of our imaginings into which God has not condescended to love us.
And we are invited to engage our imaginations to embrace that love, to respond to its call to find God in each child of history, to bear witness to the life of the light of God in the world, to make those associations between the Exodus and the immigration crisis; to find the face of God in crucified defiance, and in the innocent child.
We are invited to unfold the great mystery of the Incarnation in our own words, in the witness of our own lives, to make poetry out of the mess of living, to make heard our response, our echoing reply to the call of the Incarnate Word of God, who has given us grace to become the children of God.
*R.S. Thomas, interviewed by John Ormond of the BBC in 1972; quoted by William V. Davis, R.S. Thomas, Poetry and Theology (Baylor University Press, 2007), p. 43
*John Keble’s words are included in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, eds. (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 385