Reading Icons and Poetry

Writing some Christmas thank you letters this morning, I found myself falling into the trap of speaking of Christmas as a past event, which is not actually how I feel on this St John’s Day, 27th December.  What I was sharing, of course, was how Christmas Day was, and that day is past.  But the season of Christmas and the opportunity to engage deeply with the story, mystery and meaning of God’s self-emptying and becoming a tiny child in Jesus continues for another ten days.

There is a great temptation to rush into a new kind of frenzy immediately Christmas Day is over. But if we can just find a few minutes each day to pause, contemplate and reflect on the story of the Nativity, there is such treasure buried here, such spiritual food, that we will find ourselves nourished throughout the season; and we will be glad, so glad.

One way that I have found to support, direct and sustain me through all the seasons of the Christian year, is poetry, and particularly anthologies chosen and opened up to me by people who know a great deal more about the discipline than I do. You do not have to know anything about poetry to read and enjoy these books.  What poetry has the power to do is to link story and picture, imagination and meditation together so that we find ourselves approaching the old, old story of the Nativity, which we think we know so well, from a new and surprising angle.  The book I have been using this year is Malcolm Guite’s “Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.”  Each morning in Advent was like opening a window of an Advent calendar but far better.  Who needs chocolates?  And now during Christmas we are unwrapping a variety of “takes” on the birth of Christ.

Today we had Nativity, by Scott Cairns, which is extraordinarily powerful, layer upon layer of words and plays on words, like rapt and wrapt.  Time also layered, so that we see the various visitors to the child before, during and after their visit.  How it changes them.  They are never the same again.  One is reminded of the end of T S Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” when the narrator, one of the Magi, says that this birth was more like a death than a birth.  He refers to the death mysteriously present in the birth of the child of Bethlehem: a life / death he cannot access.  But he also refers to the death he has now experienced, to his old self, his old way of life.  He cannot settle back into what he was.  Yet, he says,

I should be glad of another death

One of the images Cairn’s poem reminded me of, was of the medieval icon that would show the whole story of the nativity. So, for example, you see the shepherds in the fields, before and after the angels come; the Magi travelling and then arriving: different parts of the story in the same picture: the same characters but in different states.

When this wonderful and amazing story gets inside us; when we meet the Christ at his birth, at his cross or at his resurrection, or when we are given the gift of seeing that the life and death are all wrapped up in every stage of Jesus’ life, we too are changed. There is no going back. As Cairns puts it, the focussing star, directs all

slow pilgrims to the core

Where all journeys meet,

Appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb…


We begin to comprehend joy and power and the pain of this blessed season and the God who loves us more than anything.