That’s all it was… dumb luck! Desperate to get a gift in the mail for a dear friend, I simply happened upon an obscure reference to For the Time Being by the distinguished 20th century poet, W.H. Auden. I’d never heard of it and concluded its very obscurity would appeal to my erudite friend. Besides, he is really smart and works at a prestigious university — my gift would make me look smart by association!
But that, too, may be post factual reconstruction. My initial motivation had little to do with erudition or even personal insecurities beneath my need to look smart. I was inspired by the fact that this famously gay poet had in midlife returned to Christianity. After the death of his mother and breakup with the man to whom he considered himself married, Auden dedicated this Christmas oratorio to his mother and wrote as emotional catharsis as much as testament of faith. Seemed like a good read for a long winter’s night!
It was not personal genius that led me to Auden’s oratorio. Rather it was dumb luck — what some might call grace! And, Auden far exceeds my mundane expectations. Nowhere does his probing and provocative rendition of the Christmas story settle for sentimentality or trite piety. His is the tempered faith of one who has struggled with life and whose own journey to Bethlehem was harsh, long and fraught with doubt.
We say that Christmas is for children, and that’s true. But there is nothing childish, cuddly or cozy about the original story. It must pass the test of time; its truth must endure through turmoil and trials that assail us. In this it must surpass any question of historicity and reveal an even more timeless truth. Few of us risk looking beyond the caricature of a sweet, unassuming, adorable babe. Auden takes the plunge!
And plunge we must — again and again. Hardly a child any longer, this Christmas marks my 67th journey through the season (and I’m counting on many more). Dumb luck led me to discover Auden’s oratorio — the unimagined, graced vehicle revealing Christmas as fresh, true, wondrous, here-and-now despite my 67th journey over the terrain. A few examples suffice…
Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are patently patriarchal, some would say stiflingly patriarchal. But is the real problem with the text or with our blind, sterile reading? Without premeditated agenda or argumentative intent Auden holds in bold relief the voiceless, befuddled, slow to catch-on Joseph in what even the Gospels cast as a secondary, supportive role. Mary, then as now, holds center stage.
Add to this the “silencing” of Zechariah when he dismisses even the potential for his wife to give birth in her old age. With fresh insight these Gospel narratives are hardly paternalistic. Rather they cast Mary and Elizabeth with the lead roles in a drama featuring what only women can do — give birth, bringing forth a savor. Patriarchy is set aside and assigned a supporting role! The text has been there all along. Why haven’t I recognized this?
The shepherds and magi are similarly flush with fresh meaning in the poet’s telling. Shepherds readily personify the settled ones, those who express the best of the past, keeping the home fires burning. The magi are persistent seekers, quick to leave the safe and familiar to discover what is beyond. Both have a place.
Neither is better. Each expresses our human capacity — indeed, our need — to recognize in this vulnerable, innocuous infant the incarnation of God-With-Us, Word made Flesh. That is the perennial invitation, to see the child for whom it is. Yes, to sit right down in the incredulity of it all. To say yes to the inconceivable.
We come to manger-like places all the time; asked first to actually see what is there, then to affirm that which we see as sacred. Never meant to resolve the mystery with tight, conclusive answers. Rather, we are invited to inch ever more deeply into the the truth our lives and the sometimes messy world which enfolds us.
The most we can offer is our intent, mustering a resolve to seek, follow and love the Mystery we recognize but cannot comprehend.
Such is our dumb luck, not genius, utter grace.
For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio by W. H. Auden. Introduction and edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton University Press, 2013.