Because in Him the Flesh is united to the Word without magical transformation ….
Because in Him the Word is united to the Flesh without loss of perfection ….
Because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of Surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.
The above lines are from a very long poem I admit I’d never heard of, or read, until several weeks ago. It is by W.H. Auden, the Anglo-American poet known for his wit, his leftist politics, his rumpled, covered-in-cigarette-ash appearance, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, “The Age of Anxiety.” He is not known, certainly, for his religiosity. Yet contemporary critics have called Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” one of the most powerful poems ever on the meaning of Christmas. These critics include some who do not even believe in Christmas, like New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.
Auden’s is a “Christmas that can glimpse redemption even in the trivialization of Christmas, in the frantic shopping, distracted gaiety and unsuccessful attempts … to love all of our relatives,” wrote Peter Steinfels in The New York Times. Auden’s “is a Christmas for grown-ups.”
The poem focuses on the incarnation as an annual reminder of how God becoming Man redeemed from insignificance the monotonous sludge, pettiness, and brokenness of our lives, to paraphrase William F. French in the magazine, “The Christian Century.” God in our world, he said, imbued the mundane with the sacred.
“Auden’s central point is that the Christ Child addresses us not so much in the holiday times of warm companionship and celebration as in the flat stretches of our lives,” wrote French, adding that we’d be better off reading this poem when we need it most: in the dreary, post-Christmas months where our ordinary existence is lived out.
That may be true. Still, for those of us who’ve never had the pleasure, “For the Time Being” surely makes for a soul-enlarging exercise at the beginning of Advent. Written during World War II, it’s very long and in some places difficult for non-scholars — like me. Auden takes numerous liberties, some comical, some playing with time. Herod, for example, contemplating the grisly slaughter of the innocents, comes across as a cheerful, mid-20th century bureaucrat pleased with himself for modern innovations (sandwiches and soft drinks in all the inns) and peace in the streets. But this radical Christ Child could bring social chaos, and then where would he be?
“Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish,” frets Auden’s Herod. Unfortunately, he just can’t let that happen.
“For the Time Being” quite clearly reveals that Auden, one of the great brains of the last century, possessed a great faith as well. I find that very reassuring. Yet revealing that faith appalled Auden’s fellow intellectuals. They read “The Christmas Oratorio,” trashed it, and “snorted,” as French put it, that this brilliant Marxist/Freudian had gone mentally soft and hopelessly bourgeois.
The same fate would likely befall any avowed secular genius suddenly going for God today, of course. True believers, many in the smart set still insist, can’t be smart at all. Yet, as I said, contemporary critics see Auden’s “Christmas Oratorio” differently. Perhaps because 70-plus years later, the poet’s mystical leanings are less threatening. Or perhaps because, as Adam Gopnik has wonderfully observed, “our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith. We moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.”
In any case, since “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” is 1,500 lines long, I’ll give you but a brief preview.
Auden begins with “Advent,” when “darkness and snow descend.” He moves on to “The Annunciation.” The angel Gabriel recounts how Eve in Eden “denied the will of love and fell,” and then tells Mary she can right that wrong.
Today the unknown seeks the known
What I am willed to ask, your own
Will has to answer; child, it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child who chooses you.
Auden then shows us Joseph fretting and taunted:
Mary may be pure,
But Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance … Well …
And when a rattled Joseph asks Gabriel for proof, the angel shuts him down with a line that may sound familiar:
No, you must believe.
Be silent, and sit still.
As the Wise Men make their way to the manger, Auden anthropomorphizes the Star of Bethlehem:
I am the star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me.
He has the Wise Men complaining about the weather, missing their dogs, and being utterly lost. Yet he also has them waxing on, as if they’re in some mindfulness training seminar, December 2015.
Says the first Wise Man:
To discover how to be truthful now
Is the reason I follow this star.
Says the second Wise Man:
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.
Says the third Wise Man:
To discover how to be loving now
Is the reason I follow this star.
Then all three say together:
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.
Some of the poem’s most beautiful passages come from Auden’s imagining the biblical Simeon, the old man from Luke’s Gospel who’d been promised he would not die before seeing Jesus. It is Simeon speaking, through Auden, at the beginning of this column.
But it is the ending that resonated most with me. The narrator speaks about a modern Christmas, now over and done, and of the divine invitation we all receive at Christmas to restore our faith, to hold on to that glimmer of hope and belief. It is not easy, the poet warns.
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them to the attic,
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have see the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long ….
To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.