by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 17, 2006
Scriptures: Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 2:1-20
“And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger” –Luke 2:16
I have been reading poetry lately, and one of the marks of good poetry is its particularity or concreteness. A poet sees a thing in this world, – a tree, a solitary lass, a locomotive – and makes it the bearer of meaning beyond its mere “thingness,” by metaphor and simile and setting. I came upon this German poem by Heinrich Heine, in a song by Robert Schumann. The Lieder (Song) tradition of 19th century German Romanticism, from which this comes, is one of the truly exquisite gifts of European culture to the world. Great composers, – Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss and others, set to music great poets – Johannes-Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Heinrich Heine and others, and great singers – like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Thomas Hampson, performed and interpreted them for us.
Here is Heine’s poem: “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne, / Die liebt’ ich einst alle in Liebeswonne. / Ich lieb’ sich nicht mehr, ich liebe alleine / Die Kleine, die Feine, die Reine, die Eine; / Sie selber alle Liebe Wonne,/ Ist Rose und Lilie und Taube und Sonne.” (The Rose, the Lily, the Dove, the Sun, / Once in bliss I loved every one, / No more, No more; Now I love solely, / Her who is small, fine, pure, and only; / She herself is the bliss of love, / Is the Sun and the Lily, is the Rose and the Dove.” – my translation).
This is a poem of two lists, one concrete, of objects taken from the Song of Songs, – Rose, Lily, Dove and Sun, – another abstract, (a sound play on the poets name, Heine), Kleine, Feine, Reine, Eine. He loves her only (alleine) and she is tiny (Kleine), exquisite (Feine), pure (Reine), and unique (Eine). She has entered his soul, the non-material dimension of his being, has moved from the external world to his innermost heart; but that is not where she stays, no, she re-materializes, returns to the external world as Rose and Lily, Dove and Sun; but not the same old Rose, and Lily, Dove and Sun with which we began: now she is transfigured, laden with the meaning true love gives, transforming the material world by an ecstasy of love (Liebes Wonne), not dissolving matter into idea, but rather establishing love in matter, hard, concrete, and particular, upon a shimmering foundation whose effulgence now glows. The meanings given for Wonne are, “joy, delight, rapture, ecstasy and bliss.” It is a favorite word of the Romantic poets, and it describes what our poet’s world becomes after his experience of his beloved has reconstituted it a place of ecstasy and bliss. Through her exquisite concentration of pure and unique love his entire world shines with delight.
So, joy to the world, the Lord has come. He is small, he is exquisite, he is pure, he is unique, and he transforms my life and my world. When I see him I am like Dante when first he saw his Beatrice; “Incipit Vita Nova,” he said, I say, “New Life Begins!” Once we loved in a natural way the Sun, the Dove, the Lily and the Rose, in a bliss of created energy, but marred by sin and death; now we exalt in new life and a self transformed by this pure, exquisite, and unique little one. See Jesus! See the New Creation!
Thus the first point of my Christmas sermon is the one I make every year: particularity. This newly creating God has a mother named Mary and a guardian named Joseph, he was born into a manger in Bethlehem, and his name is Jesus, These are particular proper names. Not ideas, not hopes, not wishes, not explanations and not theories were born at Christmas, but Jesus the son of Mary and the ward of Joseph, who is before us now as a newborn boy on his birthday. We relate to him as we relate to a person, a very little person; we exclaim at his beauty, we greet him by name, we congratulate his mother and foster father, and we love him with that wondering, life-giving love that we recognize so well from the birth of our own children and the children close to us. If you have ever loved anyone, if you have ever felt the miracle of love for a child, you know the heart of our religion. We are those who believe that this transfiguring experience of awe before the beloved is the real presence of our God to us. God is love in this exquisite, pure and tiny baby with whom we enter into the eternal relationship of life, here and now. We know this because we encounter in the Other especially in the newborn Other the power of creation, the creative power, the energy that creates and designs and invents and cherishes and preserves and comforts and satisfies and affirms, the creative power that seals us in God’s image by our creativity, and our love, which is creativity’s perfection.
My second annual Christmas point is that this discovery changes our understanding of power decisively and forever. We have always known that the weakest so-called power is coercion at gunpoint, or threat, or promise, or deception or flattery or manipulation; we have always known that power corrupts and pride poisons, that he who exalts himself is humbled and the humble are exalted. Pride kills; pride is poison. We know that from a cursory glance at history, and we know it from even a brief meditation on God’s most magnificent act of power to date, His own Incarnation as a baby boy, to recreate the world from within its weeping walls by the gently irresistible power of human love like the love we can feel for a baby, when it becomes the unique love for this one unique baby, Jesus who is God as a human being.
As the pregnant Mary sang; “God has brought down the mighty and exalted the humble.” How has he done that? By blindsiding the world of the mighty and making it happen in a stable. What does Donald Trump have to say to that?
How all this works, I do not know. If I could explain it we would not need to sing it, chant it, cheer and share it. I began with a romantic poem because I think the saving relationship with this little boy is like the miracle of romantic love, like but of course not the same, when the beloved first pounds on the door of the heart, enters the soul, and comes out again to change our world. After that all things shine with ecstasy, a “Wonne,” and the love that once grabs our heart holds our world in meaning down the years of love’s maturing and mutatating into something more solid than Romance and more lasting than earthly attachment . So let us love one another, for love is of God, and at Christmas it is especially evident how humble and trusting, how vulnerable God is and how much he needs us to love Him and take care of him; but make no mistake, this humble God is the great power in the universe!