“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by …” (Heb. 1:1) a poem.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, without whom not one thing came into being. What has come into being” (John 1:1-3) is a poem.
Christmas Eve is for stories. Angels and shepherds, animals and infants, holy families and no vacancy inns. It is a night for storytellers and those who love to listen to them.
But Christmas Day is for poems. The attempt to say something true about a thing we’ve only seen in glimpses, to describe a reality that can’t be put under a microscope. Christmas Day is a singing revolution, the peaceful overthrow of a tedious regime by musicians and mystics and poets.
John says that creation was an act of artistry, that the Christ born in the barn was also the creative Word present since the dawn of time. Words make meaning out of raw sensory input, they craft a framework for understanding what is going on.
Our modern day mystic, the poet Mary Oliver, brings us a gift this morning — a rumination on the incarnation:
The spirit / likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers, / ten toes, / shoulders, and all the rest
at night / in the black branches /
in the morning / in the blue branches / of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather / plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs / the metaphor of the body,
lime and appetite, / the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body’s world,
instinct / and imagination / and the dark hug of time
sweetness and tangibility
to be understood, / to be more than pure light
that burns / where no one is —
so it enters us — / in the morning
shines from brute comfort / like a stitch of lightning;
and at night / lights up the deep and wondrous / drownings of the body
like a star.
“It could float, of course” she writes, “but would rather plumb rough matter.”
Isn’t that the heart of it? Our lives are filled with rough matter, the indignities of the body, the back that aches, the wheezing lungs, all the various plumbing always getting backed up.
Our lives themselves are rough matter. The traumatic childhoods. The messy marriages. The lonely times. The violence. The anger and the despair. The routines that wear us down like fine grain sandpaper.
We would love to find a way to float above it — and we do, for brief windows of time. We binge watch on Netflix. We pour another drink. We pull out our phones. We disconnect. We pull away. We retreat.
Even our faith can be a kind of attempt to float above it, to disengage from the messiness of the real world by focusing on some future reality and giving up on the present one. Who cares that this world is going to hell in a hand basket, whatever that’s supposed to mean, if the main event is yet to come?
Well, God does. The message of Christmas is that God, who we might imagine to be floating above it all, actually prefers the plumbing. Picks the pipes. Accepts the aches. Longs for the lungs. Wants to breathe into us and through us.
More than wants, Mary Oliver says, the Spirit needs us. It needs the metaphor of the body. It needs the body’s world, the way our bodily experiences of hunger, exhaustion, pain, pleasure, passion, and delight give rise to instinct and imagination. Without bodies we would not know the real cost of war, or the rewards of love. Without bodies we would not experience the miracle of birth, or the possibilities of family. Without us, the spirit can only be an undifferentiated unity. With us, it can know the inexhaustibly diverse permutations of life.
Without us it is just light burning where no one is. With us it is the light of all people, shining unconquerably in the darkness.
So, Mary Oliver says, the spirit enters us in the morning, putting the spark of life into our frames, like a stitch of lightning, invigorating our bodies and electrifying our souls — inciting us to action, inviting us to work, to labor, to give birth to a new world, a reality that will dawn on us the way poem unfolds into meaning.
And when the day is done, and we have given our bodies over to rest, the deep and wondrous drownings of the body, the light will still shine in the darkness of our dreaming and hint at the way forward like a star in the night.