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RUN, SHEPHERDS, RUN
Poems for Advent and Christmas
By L. WILLIAM COUNTRYMAN
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 L. William Countryman
All rights reserved.
If you are weary of having Christmas shaped for you
by the pleadings of retail advertising—
Buy this! Buy that!
Do you really have enough stuff yet? ...
If you have come to dread the hectic pace of
Christmas preparations and the collapse that follows—
Hurry, hurry to make everything perfect for the 25th!
And then, Boom! It's all over ...
If you find the secular mythology
of the perfect family Christmas—
with all your kin in perfect accord,
and peace reigning not only in the world
but even in the household—
more depressing than encouraging ...
And if you have a vague sense that
something better is possible,
that Christmas may have something to say
to real people living amid the real struggles
of the world, then:
I Invite you to prepare for Christmas
in a different way this Advent.
I invite you to spend time with some short poems
that may help you treat Christmas
not as an exercise in denial but as
an affirmation of hope and joy,
even in the midst of the realities of human life.
I invite you to find here a more rewarding path
toward the celebration of Jesus' birth,
one shaped not by commercial hype or secular myths
but by reflection on the human condition
and a deep hope rooted in the birth of the Child.
Nothing against the gifts and the feasting! These are important parts of the celebration. But they are the means, not the end. The real purpose is to rejoice in God's generosity and the new hope made possible by this birth.
Thoughts on Reading Poetry
Not all of us feel particularly comfortable or at home with poetry. Here are a few suggestions that may make your reading more enjoyable and rewarding:
1. Read aloud, if you can. Part of what is wonderful about poetry is the sound. You can hear it a little bit inside your head, but it's always better read aloud. And sometimes, oddly enough, the poem reveals its sense more easily when you read it that way.
2. Read it more than once. If it's a poem you've never read before, the first reading is often just a matter of figuring out what the words mean and how they're hooked together in sentences. The second reading often gives a much better sense of the poem as a whole.
3. Accept that you'll relate more easily to some poems than to others. Nobody likes all poems equally. You'll probably find one day's selection more rewarding than another's. Keep with it! There is a mix of styles and levels of difficulty here. And you never know what will light up unexpectedly for you.
4. Read with the punctuation more than the line endings. The sense often runs over from one line to the next. The punctuation is usually your best guide to units of meaning, such as phrases and clauses. The line endings do sometimes make us hesitate just a bit. That's fine. Just don't take them too seriously.
5. Talk with somebody else about it, if you have the chance. Often the way another person reads the poem will be a little different, and sometimes that will spark new insights for you.
With the older poems of this collection, I have taken some liberties in modernizing punctuation and spelling. I have left more recent poetry as I found it except that the publisher has chosen to substitute American spellings.
First Week of Advent
Advent" comes from a Latin word that means "coming" or "arrival," as when some great figure like the emperor arrived during a tour of the provinces. The season of Advent, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, is a focused, reflective time of preparation for our celebration of the humble birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. It also reminds us that we await another coming of Jesus, a coming in majesty at the end of all things. The second coming fulfills the promise of the first. Both together embody our human hope for a world of justice and peace.
We begin, this week, with an old Advent tradition of meditating on the "Four Last Things": Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven—all themes associated with the Second Coming. It may seem odd to prepare for Christmas by reflecting on the end of life, but it actually starts us off where we are, in a world of limits and moral ambiguity. It reminds us that we humans are still far from being in a world of enduring peace, justice, and good will.
Then, as we turn our gaze toward the child at Bethlehem, we recognize that this birth is just a beginning. We are still in the midst of understanding it and learning to live in accord with it. Advent allows us to acknowledge the sorrows and incompleteness of human existence in the here and now and so to greet God's new beginning in the manger with greater joy.
This well-known Advent hymn strikes the keynote of the season: Christ will return to establish justice on earth, to bind up what is broken, to restore the reign of God among us. Having experienced human poverty, vulnerability, and suffering, Jesus is all the more equipped to bind up the broken heart and cure the bleeding soul.
the Savior promised long:
let every heart prepare a throne,
and every voice a song.
He comes, the prisoners to release
in Satan's bondage held;
the gates of brass before him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes, the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure;
and with the treasures of his grace
to enrich the humble poor.
Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
thy welcome shall proclaim;
and heaven's eternal arches ring
with thy beloved Name.
Drawn from The Hymnal 1982, hymn 71.
Monday of the First Week of Advent: Death
John Donne was a great preacher and poet, one of whose hallmarks is passionate intensity. Today and tomorrow, we have two of his "Holy Sonnets." Today's announces the end of death's terrors.
Benjamin Britten wrote great musical settings of this and the following poem in his "Holy Sonnets of John Donne."
Holy Sonnet X
Death be not proud, though some have calléd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure—then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.
Drawn from The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, edited by Charles M. Coffin (New York: The Modern Library, 1952), 250–51.
Tuesday of the First Week of Advent: Judgment
Here, Donne calls on angelic trumpets to summon all of humanity, living and dead, for judgment. But then he reverses himself and says, "Wait! I need time for repentance." At the end, he suggests, with a touch of irony, that he needs not only the divine gift of God's own life but also the grace of a repentant heart to reassure him that God truly intends his good.
Much of the poem's imagery, including the angelic trumpet, is drawn from Paul's description of the Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18.
Holy Sonnet VII
At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go—
All whom the flood did and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if, above all these, my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.
Drawn from The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, edited by Charles M. Coffin (New York: The Modern Library, 1952), 249.
Wednesday of the First Week of Advent: Hell
Hell and Heaven are metaphors for our deepest human fears and hopes—the danger and the promise that we discern in ourselves, as individuals and as groups. This is not to say that they are unreal, but that language uses them as images to gesture toward things within ourselves that are deep and hard to speak of.
In the world of the last century and more, hell has most often taken the face of human violence: war, conquest, pogrom, totalitarianism, genocide, terrorism. The worst part of it is that it often masquerades as something high-minded. Bruce Dawe, in this poem, captures something of the way in which revolutionary hopes for good can be transformed into hell on earth. The last line suggests that the process will repeat itself. One of our Advent hopes is that God can introduce a new kind of salvation that is not merely a step toward some new hell.
only the beards are different
Among the first to go are always a few
Of the strong man's friends, crumpling up
Against the sun-pocked wall, relieved at last
Of the terrible burden of his friendship.
Cruel necessity follows him everywhere.
And the face that was once a dream
Of a patch of baked earth to the landless
And a living wage has lost its inner light,
Faded, and now, deathless and untrue
Flaps in the memory like a wind-blown poster.
Behind the monolithic smile, the frighteningly
Public eyes, a thousand trigger-fingers tense;
Sadist and pimp resume
Their tricky trades. Caught in two minds,
Men look the other way when truth cries out, that leprous
Mendicant whose importunity must be discouraged.
Travelers find the once-welcoming
Doors closed to them now; over the evening meal
The children are eyed suspiciously, radios
Turned up louder and louder to cover
All the embarrassing noises a revolution makes
In passing—the tumbrils, the firing-squads, the screams
From the underground prison,
The rifle-butts at the door, the conspirators' whisper,
The drums, the marching-songs, the hysterical spiel
Of bandaleroed barkers plugging the ancient wares ...
Somewhere the country's savior cries in his sleep.
Drawn from Bruce Dawe, Condolences of the Season: Selected Poems (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1971), 2.
Thursday of the First Week of Advent: Heaven
Our awareness of the terrible evil in the human self, something that has become repeatedly evident in the past hundred years, means that we sometimes look to the world of nature as a more adequate sign of what the universe could be, ourselves included. In this poem, Emily Dickinson turns to the natural world and its moments of particular splendor in just such a way, then wonders how humanity can ever find a place in that picture.
Dickinson's punctuation is idiosyncratic. But you will find that the dashes are good indicators for pauses in reading the lines aloud.
"Heaven" has different Signs—to me—
Sometimes, I think that Noon
Is but a symbol of the Place—
And when again, at Dawn,
A mighty look runs round the World
And settles in the Hills—
An Awe if it should be like that
Upon the Ignorance steals—
The Orchard, when the Sun is on—
The Triumph of the Birds
When they together Victory make—
Some Carnivals of Clouds—
The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call "Paradise"—
Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see—
Drawn from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, n.d.), 280–81.
Friday of the First Week of Advent: Infancy
This poem is not about the baby Jesus in particular, but about infancy as such. Henry Vaughan saw an integrity and innocence in early childhood that contrasted sharply with adult life. This infant quality of new beginning and of closeness to the Holy is part of what we see in the story of Jesus' birth and part of what makes it powerful for us.
Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my Angel-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought,
When yet I had not walked, above
A mile, or two, from my first love
And looking back (at that short space)
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gilded cloud, or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
O how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain,
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees;
But (ah!) my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn
In that state I came return.
Drawn from Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, edited by Alan Rudrum (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 172–73.
Excerpted from RUN, SHEPHERDS, RUN by L. WILLIAM COUNTRYMAN. Copyright © 2005 L. William Countryman. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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