Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Born - By John Forbis, OHC

Br. John Forbis, OHC 

Why This Poem?

In South Africa where I lived most of my monastic life, the largest number of monks we ever had in the house at one time was six, which inevitably meant that the preaching duties would come around to all of us much quicker.  For many of those years, it seemed to work out that the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass came to me. 

As for probably most preachers having to deliver a Christmas sermon, I was in a bit of a quandary about how to say something that wasn’t said before by so many others in the pulpit throughout the centuries.  So I decided to forego a conventional sermon and write poetry.  However, again, I soon felt the increasing pressure, at least from myself, to write a poem that was unlike all the other thousands -- perhaps millions -- of poems written for the occasion.  And I was having some doubts about whether I could meet this expectation … until Christmas Eve 2014.

I came across an evocative commentary about the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel that did not describe the scene as a quiet and still night where a baby was born in a stable with Joseph, Mary, animals and shepherds looking on in meekness and mild appreciation.  The exegesis by Joy J. Moore of Fuller Theological Seminary even questioned that the child was born in a stable, a barn, at all.  This led me to discover a whole debate providing an alternative historical narrative put forward that was more likely. 

Joseph probably had many family members in Bethlehem that would have taken him in since he was of the house of David where many of the descendants of David would have lived.   Yes, Joseph’s relatives probably didn’t have extra rooms because of the census.  But the Holy Family could have been put up with animals on the ground floor of a typical Palestinian home.  The child was probably placed in a stone feeding trough for the animals.  The commentary also reminded me frankly that the scene was unlikely as pretty as fashioned pageants, cards or Christmas displays.  The census was a discriminatory mandate of the government.  The shepherds were outcasts relegated to being out in the fields so that no one had to see or smell them.  The birth was probably pretty painful and graphic as all births are – this one particularly so. 

These efforts by Biblical scholars to provide an accurately historical picture of the birth prompted my imagination to write a poem that would get more at the reality of how the birth probably did appear to those shepherds upon arrival.  God was “born” into a viscerally, human scene – a mess.  The Incarnation suddenly became more accessible and poignant to me in my attempt to write with such brutal honesty.


Maybe it’s how
the wind releases
the trees and grass
after a heavy rain,
or how the mist slides
across the valley gleaming
after permeating the dusk
with an intense amber.
Or could it be
a flickering
candle-flame emitting
a constant halo?
The Caesars still believe
they are gods, sending out
their decrees to keep us
safely in the darkness.
Only, the people
have seen a great
light and the light
is not Caesar’s. 
It is the oil lamp
shining into a room –
where a woman lies limp,
hair matted and tangled.
She has just given birth
to a son she received
as an offering
hardly understood. 
A rattled young man
looks down at them both,
gently pulling the hair
from the woman’s face –
struggling to belong there
wondering whether this birth
will ever not be between
she and the child.
Both father and mother
are haunted by
an overshadowing
Then, we hear
the scufflings and clappings
of sandals and hooves
on the stone streets
and urgent voices
asking, reporting,
stammering to any
who would listen.
Glory!  The shepherds are still
not sure whether or not
they’ve just been
in the fields too long.
Why them?
Who are they?
Upon their breathless arrival
they grimace
at the blood
and sweat-soaked scene
but once they can stare
into the eyes
of a swaddling child
they can trust
the reflection
of the lamp
reminding them
of that golden blaze,
the fire that burned
for thousands of years,
the fire that burns
in their lungs
after running
like they’ve
run before.
This child
would lay down
his life
for them.
What else could they do
but embrace him
as their own
and rejoice
… even
to the sudden
of a young father.
As they comply
and return
the child
to his mother’s arms,
with hands up,
they slowly back away
in recognition of the
couple’s needs and fears.
Pouring out
into the street,
they erupt
with a roar.
And then, the mother
is finally
given the word
from whom she felt so severed;
and can now rest
with the child
warm and clammy
on her nipple.
-- John Forbis, OHC


No comments: