Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, ‘Setting the Inner Compass,’ I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul.
In this column, I share four poems related to Christmas. Christmas is a social/cultural and spiritual celebration. Culturally, Christmas is a worldwide celebration of light in darkness, gift giving and gathering in community. Jesus may be part of these festivities or not. Often, he is just a prop. In my area of the country, church attendance has dramatically declined. The segment of the population who do not identify with a religious tradition, the spiritual but not religious, continues to grow. Yet the decline in church attendance and growth of the “nones” has had no impact on holiday festivities. Christmas lights abound on my non-church going neighbors’ homes. The need for a mid-winter celebration makes sense. It’s a good thing.
In the Christian household, Christmas is about more than gathering together, gifts, and colorful lights. It is about Jesus and incarnation, the word made flesh. I celebrate Christmas believing that the center of my tradition is not a book, or a doctrine or four spiritual laws but a person, a person who lived a life full in God. Christmas invites us not to look up but to trust the way of Jesus and look around at the sacred in the midst of life. Christmas invites us to make flesh in our lives the good news of liberation and compassion we encounter in Jesus’ life.
The four poems I selected for this column play with that theme. The first is a nativity prayer by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk mystic and founder of the abbey of Clairvaux (1090 -1153). “The work of Christmas” is by Howard Thurman, author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader (1891-1981). I know little about the poem “Che Jesus” except that I like it. All I could discover is that it appeared in the form of a printed and anonymous sheet in a large factory center of the city of Córdoba, Argentina at Christmas 1969. The last poem, “Candlemas,” is by Denise Levertov. I found it in her wonderful anthology of poems on religious themes, The Stream & the Sapphire. By the time she died in 1997, Denis Levertov had published more than fifty volumes of poetry. She identified as a Christian late in life, at the age of 60. In 1989, she joined the Catholic church after moving to Seattle.
The Nativity Prayer of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love.
Caress us with your tiny hands,
embrace us with your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.
The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among all,
To make music in the heart.
Che Jesus Anonymous
They told me that you came back to be born every Christmas.
Man, you’re crazy!
…with the stubborn gesture of coming back every Christmas
you are trying to tell us something.
That the revolution that all proclaim begins first of all
in each one’s heart,
That it doesn’t mean only changing structures but changing
selfishness for love,
That we have to stop being wolves and return to being
brothers and sisters.
That we…. begin to work seriously for
individual conversion and social change
that will give to all the possibility of having bread,
education, freedom, and dignity.
That you have a message called the Gospel,
And a Church, and that’s us –
A Church that wants to be servant of all,
A Church that knows that because God became human
there is no other way to love God but to love all people.
If that’s the way it is, Jesus, come to my house this Christmas,
Come to my country,
Come to the world of men and women.
And first of all, come to my heart.
Candlemas by Denise Levertov
to infant light.
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life,
of faith he drew on,
towards deep night.
“The Nativity Prayer” by St. Bernard of Clairvaux is not copyrighted and found in many publications.
“Che Jesus” by anonymous
“The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, from Howard Thurman’s The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations is used by permission of Friends United Press. All rights reserved.
”Candlemas” by Denise Levertov, from BREATHING THE WATER, copyright ©1987 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. ([email protected]).