Christmas Poetry

Last week, I was the guest speaker for Community Bible Church’s Christmas women’s brunch. It was fun to drive out to Westchester first thing on a Tuesday morning and walk in to that beautiful log-cabin-esque church, where the meeting room had been transformed into a beautifully decorated dining hall. The morning’s program was comprised of a soloist singing “O Holy Night” followed by my presentation, followed by a carol-sing, followed by brunch. Knowing that there would be two poets in the audience, and knowing that CBC is a church with a healthy appreciation for the arts, I decided that, instead doing a typical “talk,” I would read poetry.

It worked.

Here are the poems I read:

The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman
(Emily Dickinson, 1487)

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman—
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen—

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be
A rugged Billion Miles—

Skating in Harlem, Christmas Day
Cynthia Zarin

To Mary Jo Salter
Beyond the ice-bound stones and bucking trees,
past bewildered Mary, the Meer in snow,
two skating rinks and two black crooked paths

are a battered pair of reading glasses
scratched by the skater’s multiplying math.
Beset, I play this game of tic-tac-toe.

Divide, subtract. Who can tell if love surpasses?
Two naughts we’ve learned make one astonished 0–
a hectic night of goats and compasses.

Folly tells the truth by what it’s not–
one X equals a fall I’d not forgo.
Are ice and fire the integers we’ve got?

Skating backwards tells another story–
the risky star above the freezing town,
a way to walk on water and not drown.

Christmas In The Stars
(Carey Wallace, 2010)

i.

Lord, we see a star
but what does a star mean?
What language does it speak?
What song does it sing?
And why does it reel
when the others hold fast?
We’ve studied the signs all our lives.
We know the path
the lion takes across the sky,
the twins, the bear, the man:
twisting the cords of our fate
as they turn in their dance.
But this star, that hangs so low
and burns so bright
it weaves like the torch of a friend
walking before us through the night.

ii.

I gave my life to books
and they gave me back dust
and loneliness, and wisdom
and worst of all, hope
in a world I never found
except on the page
where thoughts announced themselves in rhyme
not at each other’s throats, like mine
and when horror stalked the stage
it was the servant of the play
it couldn’t strike at will
with no lesson to tell
never tired, never full
like the horror of this world.
But my real complaint was love:
the steady man, the true woman
and the heaven they built for themselves
as the earth shook and cities fell.
If I had seen it, even once,
I could have forgotten the rest
but the wars that I knew best
were between a woman and a man
and the casualties, children.
God failed when he made the world, I said,
but I had read too many books by then:
I was haunted by their promises.
So I set out to make my own.
I began in a garden
where I crossed roses with mint;
grafted lemon twigs to a willow tree
to make the fruit easier to pick;
chose new constellations from the old stars
and gave them all new names
but no matter how I commanded them
they hung stubbornly in place.
The woman who I wove from vines
wouldn’t speak to me.
I made her a child of petals and thorns
but he couldn’t breathe.
And the hedge I grew
to shut out the failed world
became a prison wall to me.
That’s when the star appeared:
blazing across the sky
but not falling to its death
like other stars on other nights.
My books had promised a new star
among their other lies
and I’d dismissed it as a dream
not strong enough to survive this life
but now it burned so clear
that I went half-blind
and my whole world disappeared
except for that light.
And like a fool, I followed it
out into the night.

iii.

I thought wisdom was a book
that only certain men could read,
laws cut in stone by God’s finger,
a king’s secrets.
But she was a woman,
calling in the street
who everyone who passed by
pretended not to see.
She called the king a beggar
she called the rich man mad
she called the beauty crippled
she called the teacher dead.
And when she saw I listened,
she took my hand
and told me that although my life
was only a breath on a glass
God himself knew the number
of each hair on my head
and the name of every sparrow
fighting in the street for bread.
Then she led me through the city,
to see God, she said.
I looked for a palace, a theater, a court
but we came to an inn.
She walked past the front door
and stopped at the stable
where the ox and ass protested
as we stepped inside.
And a new mother looked up at us,
tears still in her eyes,
and wisdom looked back at me,
and pointed to the child.

iv.

Lord, I’ve been a fool
too wise to hope, too sane to dream
my eyes so dim with learning
I could only believe what I could see.
The witches and the women
the poets and the priests
the madmen and the beggars
they all looked the same to me
raving about some other world
hidden behind our own
and the day when our world
would roll up like a scroll
and the blind see
and the lame stand
and the wolf lie down
beside the lamb
and a little child lead all of them.
But I knew better than that:
that each life ends only in death.
Strike a pot, and it will fall apart.
The same is true for a heart,
and no magic can bind it up,
or make it new.
My heart was proof.
But you were the element
that turned dust to living flesh,
a miracle we tried to forget
as we searched the world for it.
And you were always singing,
in the dark space between the suns
in the pulse of every leaf
on every page, in every sum.
And you were a fool, too, Lord,
for love of us.
And when we couldn’t hear your voice
you wrote it for us in the stars.

The Innkeeper
(John Piper, 1986)

Jake’s wife would have been fifty-eight
The day that Jesus passed the gate
Of Bethlehem, and slowly walked
Toward Jacob’s Inn. The people talked
With friends, and children played along
The paths, and Jesus hummed a song,
And smiled at every child he saw.

He paused with one small lass to draw
A camel in the dirt, then said,
“What’s this?” The girl bent down her head
To study what the Lord had made,
Then smiled, “A camel, sir!” and laid
Her finger on the bulging back,
“It’s got a hump.” “Indeed it does,
And who do you believe it was
Who made this camel with his hump?”
Without a thought that this would stump
The rabbi guild and be reviled,
She said, “God did.” And Jesus smiled,
“Good eyes, my child. And would that all
Jerusalem within that wall
Of yonder stone could see the signs
Of peace!” He left the lass with lines
Of simple wonder in her face,
And slowly went to find the place
Where he was born.

Folks said the inn
Had never been a place for sin,
For Jacob was a holy man.
And he and Rachel had a plan
To marry, have a child or two,
And serve the folk who travelled through,
Especially the poor who brought
Their meal and turtle-doves, and sought
A place to stay near Zion’s gate.
They’d rise up early, stay up late,
To help the pilgrims go and come,
And when the place was full, to some
Especially the poorest, they would say,
“We’re sorry there’s no room, but stay
Now if you like out back. There’s lots
Of hay and we have extra cots
That you can use. There’ll be no charge.
The stable isn’t very large
But Noah keeps it safe.” He was
A wedding gift to Jake because
The shepherds knew he loved the dog.
“There’s nothing in the decalogue,”
He used to joke, “that says a man
Can’t love a dog!”

The children ran
Ahead of Jesus as he strode
Toward Jacob’s Inn. The stony road
That led up to the inn was deep
With centuries of wear, and steep
At one point just before the door.
The Lord knocked once then twice before
He heard an old man’s voice, “‘Round back!”
It called. So Jesus took the track
That led around the inn. The old
Man leaned back in his chair and told
The dog to never mind. “Ain’t had
No one to tend the door, my lad,
For thirty years. I’m sorry for
The inconvenience to your sore
Feet. The road to Jerusalem
Is hard ain’t it? Don’t mind old Shem.
He’s harmless like his dad. Won’t bite
A Roman soldier in the night.
Sit down.” And Jacob waved the stump
Of his right arm. “We’re in a slump
Right now. Got lots of time to think
And talk. Come, sit and have a drink.
From Jacob’s well!” he laughed. “You own
The inn?” The Lord inquired. “On loan,
You’d better say. God owns the inn.”
At that the Lord knew they were kin,
And ventured on: “Do you recall
The tax when Caesar said to all
The world that each must be enrolled?”
Old Jacob winced, “Are north winds cold?
Are deserts dry? Do fishes swim
And ravens fly? I do. A grim
And awful year it was for me.
Why do you ask?” “I have a debt
To pay, and I must see how much.
Why do you say that it was such
A grim and awful year?” He raised
The stump of his right arm, “So dazed,
Young man, I didn’t know I’d lost
My arm. Do you know what it cost
For me to house the Son of God?”
The old man took his cedar rod
And swept it ‘round the place: “Empty.
For thirty years alone, you see?
Old Jacob, poor old Jacob runs
It with one arm, a dog and no sons.
But I had sons . . . once. Joseph was
My firstborn. He was small because
His mother was so sick. When he
Turned three the Lord was good to me
And Rachel, and our baby Ben
Was born, the very fortnight when
The blessed family arrived.
And Rachel’s gracious heart contrived
A way for them to stay—there in
That very stall. The man was thin
And tired. You look a lot like him.”
But Jesus said, “Why was it grim?”

“We got a reputation here
That night. Nothing at all to fear
In that we thought. It was of God.
But in one year the slaughter squad
From Herod came. And where do you
Suppose they started? Not a clue!
We didn’t have a clue what they
Had come to do. No time to pray,
No time to run, no time to get
Poor Joseph off the street and let
Him say good-bye to Ben or me
Or Rachel. Only time to see
A lifted spear smash through his spine
And chest. He stumbled to the sign
That welcomed strangers to the place,
And looked with panic at my face,
As if to ask what he had done.
Young man, you ever lost a son?”

The tears streamed down the Savior’s cheek,
He shook his head, but couldn’t speak.

“Before I found the breath to scream
I heard the words, a horrid dream:
‘Kill every child who’s two or less.
Spare not for aught, nor make excess.
Let this one be the oldest here
And if you count your own life dear,
Let none escape.’ I had no sword
No weapon in my house, but Lord,
I had my hands, and I would save
The son of my right hand . . . So brave,
O Rachel was so brave! Her hands
Were like a thousand iron bands
Around the boy. She wouldn’t let
Him go and so her own back met
With every thrust and blow. I lost
My arm, my wife, my sons—the cost
For housing the Messiah here.
Why would he simply disappear
And never come to help?”

They sat
In silence. Jacob wondered at
The stranger’s tears.

“I am the boy
That Herod wanted to destroy.
You gave my parents room to give
Me life, and then God let me live,
And took your wife. Ask me not why
The one should live, another die.
God’s ways are high, and you will know
In time. But I have come to show
You what the Lord prepared the night
You made a place for heaven’s light.
In two weeks they will crucify
My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I
Will rise in three days from the dead,
And place my foot upon the head
Of him who has the power of death,
And I will raise with life and breath
Your wife and Ben and Joseph too
And give them, Jacob, back to you
With everything the world can store,
And you will reign for evermore.”

This is the gift of candle three:

A Christ with tears in tragedy
And life for all eternity.

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