Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Poetry of Christmas

"A Beautiful Story"
-At the Desert Retreat House -


An online “atheist” friend asked me yesterday if I really believed all that stuff about a baby in a manger and angels singing in the skies? It was virtually impossible to give a “quick and easy answer” to his question because my friend was assuming that stories like the one we tell at Christmas are historical depictions, offering a “blow-by-blow” account of real-life events.  Since I never think of the Christmas story in this way, it was impossible for me to answer whether or not I believed “all that stuff.”

I am relatively sure that my same friend would not ask me if I really believed all that stuff Charles Dickens once wrote about when he told the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge who was visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. My friend would realize that Dickens’ story was not written as “history,” it is a tale that expresses deeper truths by the use of of metaphor and poetry.

The story of Scrooge is based on history, it depicts the people, customs and culture of the time but no one would ask if three ghosts actually appeared to a miserly old man named Ebenezer.  And yet the story is hardly a lie, it is not told to deceive the reader.  It is in fact full of ageless and enduring truth.  In some way or another we all know who Scrooge really is, how unhappy we all are when we are miserly and self-absorbed and how much joy we can experience in sharing our lives for the welfare of others.

Part of our problem in today’s culture is that we may have forgotten how to use and understand the language of poetry. We live in an era of “24-hour news as it happens,” we are immersed in a technological society that focuses on analysis of data and so we may indeed have lost sight of how poetic language can help us explore and express the deeper truths of life.  

The stories in the scriptures of most world religious traditions are told to explore deeper truth. And so, while they are often grounded in historical facts, many stories are primarily poetic and metaphorical—what better way to tell of enduring truths.

I remember something the theologian Daniel Maguire once observed:

Fervent atheists often join fundamentalist believers in reducing
the image-rich epic poetry running throughout biblical literature to a literal reading
as if the biblical stories were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism
Anti poets take stories like the Christmas story and downsize it
into a happening that could have been caught on film.

I find it very interesting that the birth of baby Jesus and the birth of baby Buddha are told using very similar if not identical poetic imagery. In the Buddhist scriptures, when baby Buddha is born, heavenly creatures singing in the sky announce the baby’s birth as stars dance around in a joyful cosmic array. And, of course, the same thing happens with baby Jesus as angels sing in the Bethlehem sky and the stars dance in joy at the birth of the child –beautiful poetry, powerful metaphor. What a shame to reduce or downsize the stories by thinking of them as happenings that could have been caught on film.

So my “not so quick and easy” answer to the question about whether I really believe all that stuff about a baby born in a manger and angels singing in the sky is: “Yes, of course I believe it. I am just totally uninterested in whether or not this really happened.”

We tell and retell the ancient story once again at this time of year - that tender “Christmas poem” about a spark of Love that was ignited in the darkness of a stone-cold world.  

In the midst of the chaos of a dreary cold night, Love is born in a manger – it glows with bright hope in the midst of the terror of the night. Shepherds in nearby fields are asleep, lost and alone, and they suddenly “wake up” to the sounds of angels singing as stars dance in the cosmos proclaiming the good news that Love has conquered the night and peace has come to a war-torn world.

Such wonderful poetry, such a “beautiful story,” told to all people of goodwill wherever they may be –believers as well as atheists, Christians, and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.

The Poet Rainer Maria Rilke said:

If your life seems poor, do not blame it.
Blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.

In a few days it will be Christmas - a wonderful time for all of us to discover the poetry of life and to call forth its riches.


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