Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Remembering the Stable

December 24th, 2012 · No Comments · Faith and the City

Good Readers and Friends,

6a0120a679bde1970b0120a85249c2970b-800wiFor about twenty years, ever since my friend Michael introduced me to it, W. H. Auden’s grand oratorio, For the Time Being, has been Christmas reading for me.  It is a long poem (written during World War II) that dances with the deep mystery of Christmas.  Along the way, Auden examines both our desire for and our fear of an actual encounter with God.

Auden gets it right.

We want to see God, but we don’t really want to be shaken free from our favorite vices, grudges and frustrations.  We want to evoke a little nostalgia on December 25.  Let’s light a few candles and sing “Silent Night,” but we don’t want to change.  Not really.  That way, when Christmas is over, we can pack it away and resume “business as usual.”

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 up 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 seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility…

Still, despite our desire to tame it, Auden suspects that Christmas may refuse to be a warm and fuzzy holiday that has no bearing on how we live our lives.  It might–despite our defenses–change us.

At the end of the poem, Auden hints that if we dare to peek in the stable, we may see something that will mess with our every breathing moment.  I’ll leave you with his words, my friends, and with the prayer that our souls will not go untouched/unchanged by this Christmas.




(from the conclusion)

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

— W. H. Auden

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