If you’ve worshipped here at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning any time in the last few years, then you might remember that 1.) I vastly prefer Christmas Day to Christmas Eve and 2.) I have a tendency to bring poems on Christmas morning.
Christmas Eve is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of like “Death by Chocolate” cake: Christmas carols and candlelight And angel choruses AND the baby Jesus. There’s so much heaped onto that one night, and then all the memories of every Christmas Eve ever. It’s a lot to live up to.
But Christmas morning brings all the catharsis of any good morning after. By the clear light of day we can mull over the previous night’s events, try and put them in sequence, and see if we can make any sense out of them.
As for the poems, well, firstly I just love poetry and since this is a day for giving gifts, I’m inclined to share with you the gift of a good poem. More to the point, however, the gospel reading appointed for Christmas Day each year comes from the first chapter of John, and is a kind of poem itself — a hymn to the Word that sounds as much like a poem as it does a creed:
In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / and the Word was God. / He was in the beginning with God. / All things came into being through him, / and without him not one thing came into being. / What has come into being in him was life, / and the life was the light of all people. / The light shines in the darkness, / and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
Since we do get the same readings each Christmas morning though, it seems kind to bring you something new to reflect on each passing December. In former years I’ve brought you Wendell Berry and John O’Donohue, two of my favorites. This year I’ve brought you a little Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and, this past summer, guest host of The Writer’s Almanac. This poem is entitled, “Christmas Sparrow” (from his collection of poems, “Nine Horses”)
The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent —
wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of glass into the spacious light.
Then a noise in the throat of the cat
who was hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap of a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.
On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished in the nest of cloth.
But outside, when I uncapped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.
For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.
The poet, Billy Collins, gives us an image we all know that captures a sensation I suspect we’ve all felt — the panic of a bird, or a bat, or any wild thing trapped inside and trying to get free.
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker Palmer compares the human soul to just such a creature. He writes,
“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
Perhaps you know something about the tenacity of a soul trapped, frantic, beating its wings uselessly against a glass pane, while on the other side of the window life goes by filled with free people who seem to have learned a secret you are still deciphering.
The bird senses the light and longs for it, and even more, the bird longs to be free and to soar unfettered toward the light, but instead it tosses its body against the glass time and time again, unable to comprehend all that stands between the fear of the present and the promise of the future.
The prophet Isaiah says, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘your God reigns.’” And that is true even when we cannot tell it is so. John’s gospel shows us the other side of our encounter with freedom when he writes, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
For too much of our Christian history we have read those verses as a condemnation of the children of Israel, as an indictment of the Jewish people, for not accepting Christ as the messiah, as the savior, when he came into the world. How foolish of us! As if any of us really has accepted the salvation God has offered in Christ Jesus. As if any of us has stopped beating our wings, or our heads, against the glass. As if any of us truly believes that God’s salvation comes to us as evidence of God’s goodness and not our own.
When I read, “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” I understand that passage to mean that in Christ, God came to a people so terrorized by the cruelty of the world, so occupied as nation, so frantic to be free that they could not perceive their liberation in the form in which it was presented.
Collins says, “on a chair, I trapped its pulsations in a shirt and got it to the door.” How brief and benign. Maybe you’ve been tasked with catching the wild animal that’s gotten trapped in your house, and you know how fiercely it will fight, how expertly it will flee, as you work to set it free.
Aren’t we like that? So determined to break through the glass, to get to the light on the other side, that we scarcely notice when the light has broken through to us.
After the bird has been set free, the poet’s protagonist reflects on the terror it must have felt, “For the rest of the day, I could feel its wild thrumming against my palms as I wondered about the hours it must have spent pent in the shadows of that room, hidden in the spiky branches of our decorated tree, breathing there among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn, its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight…”
These words, in particular, sound a word of grace for any of us who awoke this Christmas morning with something other than joy in their hearts. We too, sometimes, can feel as though the trees, and the ornaments, and the entire season of Christmas casts a shadow so deep we get lost in it. The wild bird doesn’t want to make its home in the decorated holiday tree, it wants to escape the house and make its nest in the holly bush outside.
To you who still feel trapped this cold winter morning, who still struggle against the shadows cast by such tall traditions, I urge you to hold fast to the old poem’s words:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in his was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Break forth together into singing, you wild souls; for God has comforted God’s own people. God has set the caged bird free to burst into its element which is light, and life, and liberation.
Merry Christmas and Amen.