Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Poetry in Christmas

Some things defy pure reason. I suspect that's why human beings resort to poetry.

Who would send a Valentine card that said, "I have 'a profoundly tender, passionate affection' for you?" The italicized words are the definition of love according to my dictionary. Accurate enough, I suppose, but somehow lacking.

Even a first-grader prefers something less prosaic: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, And so are you!

And if the spirit of Valentine's Day is elusive in prose which is the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure (another dictionary definition), how much more the mood or ardor of Christmas!

Matthew could not tell the story of Jesus' birth without resorting to mystery and mysticism: Joseph's quandary, a surprisingly mobile star, and astrologers from the east: and Luke had his angelic visitations, a manger for a crib, and shepherds who travel to Bethlehem.

John's account is the most mystical of all: the Word was God, the Word took flesh, and the Word "pitched his tent among us!"

When our ancestors tried to describe God's intrusion into their history, they resorted to all kinds of literary forms: they used myths and folklore, letters and hymns, proverbs and prophecy --prose and poetry.

Jesus too used various literary devices to convey the truth: sermons, miracles, predictions, prayers, and his favorite: parables.

The Church also employs many forms: commandments, homilies, the magisterium, and her favorite: liturgy.

Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of Jesus' birth in prose ("Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event." #525), but quickly launches into a sixth century hymn by a Greek saint known as Romanos the Melodist:

The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal
And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible.
The angels and shepherds praise him
And the magi advance with the star,
For you are born for us,
Little Child, God eternal.

I have always wanted to preach my best on Christmas but have never come close to matching the occasion. One reason I fail is simple: I am more prose than poetry.

Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver describes writing poetry as a love affair between the heart ("that courageous but also shy factory of emotion") and the learned skills of the conscious mind. The two of them must come together at the same time, she says, or nothing happens.

The heart part "exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious." It's that part, as Miss Oliver puts it, which "supplies a necessary part of the poem --the heat of the star as opposed to the shape of a star."

If, as I propose, some things defy pure reason, Christmas must be at the top of the list. And if, as Mary Oliver suggests, "Poets are born and not made in school," I shall never adequately move Christmas from my lumbering prose into passionate poetry.

On the other hand, my just knowing that this very special holyday defies logic and appeals to the more sentimental and spiritual part of my nature gives me comfort and hope. For the time being I am content to revel in the Gospel revelation: "He pitched his tent among us" (John 1:14).

It's nice to know that God is so near, and on Christmas morning, after Midnight Mass, I'll listen for Jesus' ever so mundane and prosaic invitation, "Come, have breakfast" (John 21:12). And once again it'll be a Merry Christmas!

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