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A Christmas Hymn

By December 21, 2012 No Comments

I was going to write in sorrow or outrage or scolding critique about the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut a week ago today. But all of that has been vented and then some, and the postings on this site this week have said . . . not all there is to say, but the first things that need to be said, and have said them very well.

So I resort once again to poetry—in honor of the season, to Christmas carols. My favorite? Lots of competition, but Christina Rossetti’s “In the Deep Midwinter” has long been a prime contender. Quiet, sere, anti-triumphalist. Plus, as the title states, it admits upfront the not-so-subtle coincidence of our celebration of Christ’s birth with all those attempts, ancient and modern, to take on the shortest day of the year, the pit of time, the largest darkness—the winter solstice. Which falls today.  

Gaining in my appreciation, however, is “A Christmas Hymn” by Richard Wilbur. I first heard it sung a couple years ago, on Palm Sunday—the key both to the text’s profundity, theological and poetic, and to its timeliness for our circumstances this year. A congregation might well sing this hymn during Advent, then again during Passion Week, as a way of tying up the two ends of Jesus’ life. The end is present at the beginning—end both as last phase and as purpose—but the start is also there at the stop, and it’s all caught, fittingly, by the image of stones. The virtual stones by which the stable becomes a shrine. The stones on the road of the triumphal entry. The “stony hearts of men” which put the blood of God “upon the spearhead,” and the blood of first-graders on the schoolroom floor. Yet, at the very end, which is also “now,” the stars “bend their voices” as if imitating God’s condescension, so that the very stones do cry out in “praises of the child/By whose descent among us/The worlds are reconciled.” The stones become stars–or is it heralding angels?–just as our hard and weary hearts might become temples of a living word.

Richard Wilbur (b. 1921) was teaching at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, when he wrote these words for the university’s annual Christmas concert in 1958. The poem was first published in his Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961), and appears in hymnals today as “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted.” I heard it sung to the tune ANDUJAR, composed by David Hurd, professor of music at General Theological Seminary in New York City. Listen for it at about 3:00 here:  

         A Christmas Hymn

 A stable-lamp is lighted
   Whose glow shall wake the sky;
      The stars shall bend their voices,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry,
      And straw like gold shall shine;
         A barn shall harbor heaven,
      A stall become a shrine.

 This child through David’s city
   Shall ride in triumph by;
      The palm shall strew its branches,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry,
      Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
         And lie within the roadway
   To pave his kingdom come.

 Yet he shall be forsaken,
   And yielded up to die;
      The sky shall groan and darken,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry
      For stony hearts of men:
         God’s blood upon the spearhead,
   God’s love refused again.

 But now, as at the ending,
   The low is lifted high;
      The stars shall bend their voices,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry
      In praises of the child
         By whose descent among us
   The worlds are reconciled.

Richard Wilbur remains one of the United States’ most distinguished poets. He was Poet Laureate of the United States for 1987-88 and has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry as well as the National Medal of Arts. Approximately one-third of his poetry can be classified as religious. May “A Christmas Hymn” be a present treasured this day of the deep midwinter.   


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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