Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Last Month of the Year



“Christ Climbed Down,” by Lawrence Fehrlengetti

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
and German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest of
Second Comings

I was just teaching this poem, one that has been around long enough almost to become a cliche, as familiar a feature of some Christmas observances as Scrooge and Charlie Brown, and reading it aloud I realized what a wonderful meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation and Advent it is.

I'm still puzzling out why we rush through Advent and make haste to get to Christmas, only to throw the whole thing in the garbage on December 26th and hurry our way through to a drunken stupor on January 1st morning, but I have some ideas about it. Fehrlengetti's poem is clearly about that, about all the preparation and the things that, in Linus Van Pelt's wonderfully ironic phrase, "really brings Christmas close to a person." But only when you read it aloud do you capture the chorus-like repetition of the first four lines, and realize how each repeat of those lines sets you up to expect another layer of the modern observance of the last month of the year. The first lines drop like a stone into our understanding of the Nativity and the Crucifixion, of Christmas and Easter, and the rest of the poem describes those ripples that stone makes in our consciousness.

It starts with the Christmas trees, then spreads outward from there to the people: first he "cornball relatives," then the Bible salesman (as if the word of God needs marketing!), then the advertising Magi, and from those religious circles out into the secular world of Santa and Bing Crosby and Radio City Music Hall (bringing their Xmas show to Houston this January! Some things never change, even after 50 years.)

But just when you expect the whole thing will end with a "J'accuse!," with another Christ-cleansing-the-temple moment, with Jesus climbing down to declare "You suck!" and running away to avoid the glitter and twinkly lights, it does something else entirely, and instead returns us to the mystery of the Incarnation. The poem isn't about criticizing modern society after all. There are really only a few ironic lines, and they aren't really so ironic as they are honestly descriptive. The poem is about the eternal mystery at the heart of the religious holiday which still beats at the center of all this busy-ness and concern. It is an observance of peace in the midst of clamor, of wonder in the midst of the quotidian.

It's good to remember it is still, at least on the liturgical calendar, Christmas.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

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