Ordinary Time Glows by the Light of Christmas Time
Christmas may well be one of those childish trifles we’re expected to put away when we grow up – but why then does the wish strangely persist?
John Betjeman, who was Poet Laureate of England from 1972 until his death in 1984, was an avowed Christian of High Anglican persuasion, some of whose poems celebrate and affirm the truths of our common faith, most especially the centrality of the Incarnation of God. But unlike, say, Thomas Hardy, an earlier English poet who, while disbelieving in the Christmas Story, nevertheless hoped it might be so, Betjeman, for all that he declared it to be so, was very much afraid that it might turn out not to be true after all.
See, for instance, Hardy’s treatment of the legend that on Christmas Eve, the oxen, owing to some ancestral memory, fall to their knees in pious deference to the Child they once kept warm in the stable at Bethlehem.
“So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years!” he exclaims. The very notion, in other words, is dismissed as scarcely more than infantile superstition, a happy conceit tucked away in the childhood of the race. But if asked to go round and witness such a miracle, he would not hesitate to do so. “I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / ‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb,
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so
Christmas may well be one of those childish trifles we’re expected to put away when we grow up – amounting to nothing more than, to quote the redoubtable Dr. Johnson on the fellow who wanted to get remarried, the triumph of hope over experience – but if so, why then does the wish strangely persist? Why don’t we simply put it away and be done with it? Why would Hardy, or anyone else for that matter, continue to hold out hope that it might yet be true?
Then, at the other end, there is the case of poor John Betjeman, who, despite a lifetime’s seeming conviction that it must all be so, nevertheless remained uncertain that, in the end, any of it was true at all. In perhaps the most widely anthologized of his poems, “Christmas,” we sense at once the creeping note of doubt.
“And is it true,” he asks, “This most tremendous tale of all, / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue, / A baby in an ox’s stall? / The maker of the stars and sea / Become a child on earth for me?”
Not only does he once sound the subjunctive note, in which the soul holds its breath yet, despite its doubt, reaches out, but twice in the course of eight short stanzas he appears a bit shaken and unsure before this admittedly most stupendous fact of all. It’s as if he really does not know if the event actually happened or not. “And is it true?” he asks plaintively in the final stanzas, as though faith were a reed almost too thin to carry. “For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells.
Can with this single truth compare–
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Never mind, of course, that insinuated into that last couplet is a reading of Real Presence that would horrify the teaching of Trent, with its emphatic rejection of anything less than a total transformation of the accidents of bread and wine into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ. Focus rather on the telling phrase, “And is it true,” raised repeatedly in the poem, which suggests the real possibility that, in fact, it may not be true. And why is that? Because, quite simply, the blessed Event on which the truth of the claim is made, might never have happened. It is this datum of doubt, first baked into the whole Reformation polemic, that weakens the witness which the poet otherwise hopes to provide.
It is that little word hope, incidentally, which is the key to the whole business. Not hope theologically understood, whose basic orientation is a God on whom we can depend, yes, even in the teeth of his apparent absence; but a self-generated hope, prescinded from any promise he once made to be with us, to come among us even as a little child. But instead a private, solipsistic hope, such as the poet Emily Dickinson had in mind when she called it, “a thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.”
How very gossamer a thing that is! To what impossible chimera of desire has it not given illusory flight? Really, a thing with feathers is no better than Shakespeare’s “walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” As dependable, if truth be told, as those wax wings on which poor Icarus hopelessly launched himself into space.
Let me say it again. We’ve entered the world of the subjunctive, an almost unreal place where the meals are served by that “subtle glutton,” whom Miss Dickinson has identified as hope, where the unsuspecting diner is cheated of his meal. “And yet,” she warns, “inspected closely, / What abstinence is there!” Hope is not very giving, in other words, which is why we mustn’t forget that in the realm of the subjunctive everything is but a mood, not a tense indicating when or what will happen. It carries no real, no palpable freight on which the soul may feed. Only that, please God, it may actually be You, the Lord of history and the universe, whom we’ve waited so long to see in the crib.
If the cry of hope is always spoken by someone on whom the happy outcome of that hope does not finally depend, nevertheless, for us Christians, it has always carried a certitude and weight guaranteed by God himself. Who willed to come among us as an infant, beneath whose swaddling clothes the eyes of the soul may see the very face of God.