In the Beginning Was Poetry – Sermon for Christmas 1, RCL Year B

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 31, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, Christmas 1, RCL Year B, are Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7; and St. John 1:1-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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“In the beginning was the Word . . . .” The Prologue of John’s Gospel echoes the opening words of the Bibe, “In the beginning God said . . . .” Our God is a god who communicates, who speaks, whose Word creates.

The collect for blessing the Christmas Créche begins, “O God our Creator, to restore our fallen race you spoke the effectual word, and the Eternal Word became flesh . . . .” (Book of Occasional Services 2003, page 37) I’ve always like that turn of phrase, “the effectual word” . . . the word that accomplishes something, the word that has power.

In his magisterial work on the poetry of the Indian sage Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. S.K. Paul wrote of powerful words:

If we think of poetry as the use of especially powerful words, then there may reason to suppose that poetry was more important in the prehistoric, preliterate past than it is today – in song, in ritual, in myth – with the structure and choice of words compensating for the impossibility of any written record. Some have even suggested that in the beginning was poetry – in the evolution of language each new word was a poem, the outward expression of a new inward perception. (The Complete Poems of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali: Texts and Critical Evaluation, Sarup & Sons: New Dheli, 2006, page 318)

“In the beginning was poetry, the use of especially powerful words.” Poetry, poetic language, and metaphor are powerful means of expression which say so much more than our everyday, prosaic language can. It is one thing to say, “Look, there’s Juliet,” but so much more powerful to say, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” (Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2) It is one thing to say, “My girlfriend is pretty,” but so much more effective to say, ” O my Luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June.” (Robt. Burns, A Red, Red Rose, 1794)

“In the beginning was poetry, the use of especially powerful words.” This is certainly true of the Christian bible. The Hebrew Scriptures start with a liturgical poem; the Prologue of John’s Gospel is a poem; Isaiah’s prophecy is a poem. In the short lesson from the prophet today, itself a poem, Isaiah uses three powerful metaphors to illuminate the relationship of Israel to God: a wedding (Israel is the Almighty’s bride), a garden (righteousness will blossom in the earth), and a coronation (Jerusalem is God’s crown). Scripture is replete with poetry and poetic language because, as Debra Dean Murphy, a professor of Religious Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, has said:

The creation of the cosmos can only be communicated, the ancients knew, through language that speaks to the imagination–that unity of intellect and emotion which was for the biblical writers the restless human heart. (The Poetry of Resurrection in Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics, blog entry, April 13, 2011, online)

So, as we end this year, look forward to a new year, and come later this week to the end of the Christmas season, I want to share some poetry to with you, reflections on the passing of years from poets of the past two centuries.

The first is an early 20th Century poem published in 1907 by the Canadian poet Robert W. Service (1874-1958). Service was known as “the Bard of the Yukon”. He is best known for his poems The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee, from his first book, Songs of a Sourdough (The Ryerson Press, Toronto:1965), from which this poem entitled The Passing of the Year also comes. Perhaps you can see yourself in one of the “audience” of the Old Year to whom the poet speaks:

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
With much of blame, with little praise.

Old Year! upon the Stage of Time
You stand to bow your last adieu;
A moment, and the prompter’s chime
Will ring the curtain down on you.
Your mien is sad, your step is slow;
You falter as a Sage in pain;
Yet turn, Old Year, before you go,
And face your audience again.

That sphinx-like face, remote, austere,
Let us all read, whate’er the cost:
O Maiden! why that bitter tear?
Is it for dear one you have lost?
Is it for fond illusion gone?
For trusted lover proved untrue?
O sweet girl-face, so sad, so wan
What hath the Old Year meant to you?

And you, O neighbour on my right
So sleek, so prosperously clad!
What see you in that aged wight
That makes your smile so gay and glad?
What opportunity unmissed?
What golden gain, what pride of place?
What splendid hope? O Optimist!
What read you in that withered face?

And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?

And so from face to face I flit,
The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
Old weary year! it’s time to go.

My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!

The next is also by a Canadian poet, the late Margaret Avison who died in 2007. She was a librarian, social worker, and teacher, and a devout Christian. She authored several books of poetry, was elected to the Order of Canada in 1984, received the Governor General’s Award twice, the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2003, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Leslie K. Tarr Award for outstanding contribution to Christian writing in Canada. This is her simply titled New Year’s Poem from Always Now: The Collected Poems (Porcupine’s Quill, Ontario:2003):

The Christmas twigs crispen and needles rattle
Along the window-ledge.

A solitary pearl
Shed from the necklace spilled at last week’s party
Lies in the suety, snow-luminous plainness
Of morning, on the window-ledge beside them.
And all the furniture that circled stately
And hospitable when these rooms were brimmed
With perfumes, furs, and black-and-silver
Crisscross of seasonal conversation, lapses
Into its previous largeness.

I remember
Anne’s rose-sweet gravity, and the stiff grave
Where cold so little can contain;
I mark the queer delightful skull and crossbones
Starlings and sparrows left, taking the crust,
And the long loop of winter wind
Smoothing its arc from dark Arcturus down
To the bricked corner of the drifted courtyard,
And the still window-ledge.

Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
This unchill, habitable interior
Which mirrors quietly the light
Of the snow, and the new year.

I love the first words of that last stanza, “Gentle and just pleasure it is, being human.” John’s Prologue reminds us that God shares that “gentle and just pleasure” with us in the Incarnation of Christ.

The third poem I want to share with you is To the New Year from Present Company (Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington: 2005) by W. S. Merwin. Merwin is perhaps best known as a translator of poetry from other languages into English; he has rendered the works of such diverse artists as Pablo Neruda, Osip Mendelstam, and Dante Alighieri. But he is a considerable poet in his own right having won the Yale Young Poets Award in 1952 (awarded by W.H. Auden). The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin has been a practicing Buddhist since 1976.

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Merwin’s vision of the new year coming unnoticed in the early morning stillness as sunlight “reaching down” reminds me of the Psalmist’s invocation of God’s word coming like snow and hoarfrost, and his closing words describing our knowledge and our hopes as “invisible, untouched, and still possible” seems almost prayer-like.

And then there is what a friend of mine calls “THE New Year’s poem,” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, sometimes called Ring Out, Wild Bells, which is found in many anthologies. (I found it in L.B. Hopkins, ed., Ring Out, Wild Bells: Poems About Holidays and Seasons [Harcourt Children’s Books, New York:1992].) Tennyson (1809–1892), the son and grandson of Anglican clergymen, was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

As I read that poem early this morning, it seemed as if it could have been written today! Let us echo Tennyson’s hope that this coming year we can “Ring out the darkness of the land [and] ring in the Christ that is to be.”

And, finally, although it is not yet the end of the Christmas season (we still have six more days until Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany), there is The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman (1899–1981), found in H. Weaver, Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Quaker Press, Pendle Hill, PA:2011). Thurman was a mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was first dean of the chapel at Howard University and then dean of the chapel at Boston University. He taught in the theology faculties of the seminaries associated with both schools.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

I hope that as you contemplate the power of the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells among us, the powerful words of these poets have offered you some grist for your year-end reflections, and I pray that, as we close this year and begin the new, 2018 will be a healthy and prosperous year for all of us, for our country, and for our church.

Amen.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

This entry was posted in Anglican, Bible, Christianity, Christmas, Church, Episcopal, Eucharist, Galatians, Isaiah, John, Lectionary, Liturgy, Ministry, Poetry, Prayer, Psalms, Religion, Scripture, Sermons, Spirituality, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

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