"A Cradle Song" // A Poem for Christmastime

by William Blake

Sweet dreams for a shade,
O'er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy silent moony beams

Sweet sleep with soft down,
Weave thy brows an infant crown. 
Sweet sleep Angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child.

Sweet smiles in the night,
Hover over my delight. 
Sweet smiles Mothers smiles
All the livelong night beguiles.

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes,
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Sleep sleep happy child.
All creation slept and smiled.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep,
While o'er thee thy mother weep

Sweet baby in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like these, 
Thy maker lay and wept for me

Wept

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee. 

Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are his own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

In this season it is good to slow and stop and hear the words "miracle" and "incarnation" and (sure, go for it) "hypostatic union." It is good at Christmas to mull over the mystery of God in human flesh and why not use all the big words we've got?
But then it is also good to hear the eighteenth-century Blake speak in the simplest words of the most magnificent mystery: God the "maker" has become a crying babe, and "Infant smiles are his own smiles"!

When I see the cradle rocking...

Advent

by Donald Hall

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
        Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
       At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
        Horror vacui.


(Source: Poetry magazine, January 2010)

Advent Hope Is Not

tinsel, market projections, gift cards -- no.

Advent hope is not that a pretty baby will appear in the manger and sales will rise and the economy will resurrect. Advent hope is that empires will fall: all empires, with their idolatry, their gluttony, their pollution, their wars, their intrigue, their murder, and their weapons. . . . Advent hope is that our own empire will fall, and our own idolatry cease.
— Shelley Douglass

Advent hope is that our own empire will fall,

and our own idolatry cease.

 

"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your King comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim,
and the war-horses of Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth."
[zechariah9.9-10]

The Word is With

In the beginning, there was darkness. Then God spoke and He said, "Let there be light!" and His voice boomed through the primordial emptiness. And that voice became light, each syllable bright, each sound radiating. His word was light. "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day..." (Genesis 1)

In the hot desert of Midian, God spoke from a blazing tree. His words were fire and flame. "Moses, Moses. I AM that I AM..." (Exodus 3)

Atop the towering Mount Sinai, the Word of God came with a smoky cloud of darkness and a blasting trumpet. The Word of God was given in etched stone, finger drawn on two tablets. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me..." (Exodus 20)

Through David, the word of the LORD came in meter and time, in rhythm and Hebrew rhyme. It came in song and in poetry. God's word in verse and sung with notes in human voices. "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness...!" (Psalm 29)

To Elijah, the word of God came in a still, small voice. "What are you doing here, Elijah?..." (1 Kings 19)

To Jeremiah, God's word came as a fire in his bones, as an internal burning passion, as a declaration which could not be kept silent. God's word was trouble and persecution, it was a dug-out pit and a kidnapping to Egypt. It was words spoken to a deaf and endangered people: "Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord!..." (Jeremiah 51)

God's word was to Daniel visions and dreams. God's word was a statue and a rock, it was beasts and water and it was measured in weeks and days. "Unto two thousand three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed..." (Daniel 8)

And the word of God to Hosea was an unfaithful wife, it was illegitimate children, it was loving the adulteress again and again. "I will marry you to me forever. I will marry you in righteousness and in justice and in lovingkindness. I will marry you in faithfulness and you will know the LORD..." (Hosea 2)

God's word came to Nehemiah as the permission of a Persian king and as a building of a broken down wall. "I had not told anyone what God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem..." (Nehemiah 2)

It came to the writer of Chronicles through dusty old history books in which were written the deeds of the kings. "Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah..." (2 Chronicles 20)

And God's word came through Joel and Micah, through Haggai and Zecharaiah and through Malachi and Amos. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5)

>> "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being..." (Hebrews 1:1-3a)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-5, 9-14)

The Word made flesh—what an astounding thing! The Word made like us and with us and among us! >> That Word speaks to us the most significant message: Immanuel, God with us.

God with us: this is the central miracle of Christmas, the locus of our wonder.

    Two thousand years on this side of the Incarnation and Christmas is for us much about lights and candy canes and stockings and jingle bells. And I love all of those things about Christmas! But in the last week I’ve been thinking about the Incarnation in a different light. 

    The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri have reappeared in the news these last two weeks as it was announced that the police officers who killed them would not be indicted and brought to trial. Protests have filled the streets of the cities across our nation. Simultaneously, political pundits and talk show hosts have exchanged opinions, throwing praise and condemnation for the officers, for the rioters and protesters, for the dead men. Your Twitter feed and Facebook feed have likely surged with opinion pieces, snarky rejoinders, ALL CAPS COMPLAINTS, and political cartoons about police brutality, thugs, racism, justice and injustice. 

    So as we’re entering the Christmas season of cheer, I have death on my mind. I have on my mind the names of dead men—of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Ezell Ford—just 5 of those killed by police in recent months, unarmed young black boys and men. I have in my ears the cries of those black and brown voices who are threated by police, not always protected by them. I have on my heart the weight of a real history of inequality and injustice, of state violence against black bodies, of popular pathologizing of black minds, of criminalization of black communities. 

    And I wonder: What does the Word-made-flesh have to say to our world this Christmas season? This December, as we watch our sensationalist news programs and see our Christian acquaintances exchange acerbic commentary across our computer screens, what does the Word-made-flesh have to say? What does it have to say but that which it has always said in the largest possible letters?: Immanuel, God with us. 

    That Word says that God is compassionate. Compassion means to suffer with. God suffers with. He sees our pitiful position. He hears our hurts and our long songs of lament. He has made Himself woundable and He is wounded. Scripture says, “Jesus saw the large crowd and had compassion on them” (Mark 6:34); it says that “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7); it says that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35); it says that “Since the children have flesh and blood he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15). 

    So even now we may entrust our laments to Immanuel. We may cry to him in our pain and know that He hears us, and that He feels that pain too. We may mourn for our neighbors, our brothers, our sons and know that we do not weep unseen and alone. God is with us, suffering with us. 

    And it would be enough unexpected grace to know that God cared from a distance. But the Word of Immanuel preaches a greater message still: God with us, not only in compassion, but in real presence. God makes Himself present. God with us. God, the high and holy one, with us, the lowly and wicked ones. God, the unbounded and infinite one, with us, the fragile and feeble ones. God, the powerful and majestic one, with us, the human dust particles on one of His tiny planets in one of His little galaxies. God with us. 

    The Word-made-flesh says particularly that God is with the weak. It’s why He came to us. While we were yet powerless, while we were still sinners, His enemies, God came to be with us. And the consistent picture of Scripture is that God is with the weak, and this picture comes into crystal clear focus in the Incarnation. Listen to the song Jesus’ mother sang (Luke 1:46-53). “...He remembered the humble state of His servant… He has scattered those who are proud… He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Over and over and over and over again God has spoken of His concern for the weak, for the poor, for the outcast, for the outsider. But in these last days He has spoken by His Son, and He has said in no uncertain terms that He is on the side of those without power. 

    God goes to the suffering, God meets the lonely, God cries with the crying, God overthrows the rulers, God exalts the lowly, God liberates the oppressed, God punishes the unjust, God comforts the poor. 

    Oh, that we might be like this, our God! Oh, that we would be less impressed by the powerful and more impressed with the poor! Oh, that we might love justice and labor against injustice! Oh, that we would love like He loves! Oh, that we would go where He goes! 

    But we are hard-hearted. We will not listen to each other. We would rather post scathing blogs than have a conversation. We will lock our doors against those who say they feel unsafe. We will travel across town to avoid hearing a nuanced story. We will blame the dead and ignore the living. We will not choose charitable speech. We will offer contempt instead of compassion. We will distance ourselves from those who disagree. We will yell far that people are racists; we will loudly accuse people of race-baiting.

    Will we let the Word-made-flesh speak to us this Christmas? Will we hear His message of compassion, of presence, of solidarity with the weak? The second Person of the Trinity humbles Himself; He shrinks Himself down to dwell in Mary’s womb; He binds Himself to humanity with an umbilical cord; He gasps for air and cries for milk.

    Will we see in His humility a call to be compassionate, to be present, to be in solidarity with the weak? Will we wonder not only at the miracle of His physical body, but at the miracle of His Spirit-ual Body, the Body which we are?---and will we honor that miracle by dwelling together in the bond of peace? 

Photo by ginosphotos/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by ginosphotos/iStock / Getty Images

    Will we worship this infant King, and then follow Him?

    We were impressed by the burning bush and the pillar of fire. We thought God was close in the Angel and in the Shekinah. But God wanted to be closer still. God-nearby-us wasn’t good enough for him. He gave Himself to become God-with-us. Glory! Alleluia! Amen! Now go and do thou likewise.