Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"A Day On Which Absolutely Nothing Happened."

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
--W.H. Auden, 1940
I was teaching this poem yesterday when I recognized the connection to Advent.

Most commentators focus on the last painting of the three described, "The Fall of Icarus." But this is a walking tour of the Musee des Beaux Arts in Belgium, where all three Breughel paintings mentioned are in the collection. And this one, "The Census at Bethlehem," is now, for me, the image of Advent.

As Auden says, the old people are busy with their business, trying to register for the census that is the reason, in Luke's nativity story, for Jesus being born in Bethlehem. The children, however, and the rest of the world, far from being stopped by this event, go on blithely around it. Luke focusses us on the singular importance of the census; Breughel shows us that was is singular to some, is of no particular importance to most others.

The year I got married, a good friend of mine was getting married, too; about a month after me, in fact. I was in his room one day, and noticed on this desk calendar that the date of my wedding was blank. I grabbed a pen and scribbled "Absolutely Nothing Happening" in the empty box for my wedding day.

A few weeks after the wedding, he presented me with a photo album of pictures he'd taken teh day of the wedding, complete with captions. The title: "A Day On Which Absolutely Nothing Happened."

And so Advent proceeds, or should; not as an event the brings the world to a halt, or even to take much notice. A day coming on which absolutely nothing happened; unless it was important to you.

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