Poetic Imagination and the truth of God

What follows is a little essay I wrote for our parish newsletter/magazine, where it appeared this past Christmas. I offer it here because it discusses a book, The Heliand, that appeals to me on a variety of levels, and raises -- in my mind, at least -- the question of the poetic imagination, which I would like to deal with explicitly in some future post.

The Almighty Word at Christmastime

cat nativity
If Jesus had been God-made-cat,
rather than Man.
I find the “Christmas season” (that time of year that used to be Advent) irritating, but not for the reason you might expect. It’s not the wretched Christmas music blared in every public venue from Macy’s to Jiffy Lube, nor is it the crass commercialization that spawns such things as sermons on “What Would Jesus Buy?” and ads that show tinsel Christmas trees with small electronics as ornaments. Those are mostly products of a crass and cynical world that has little love for God, and are therefore not to be wondered at or, in my case, even noticed (I have developed a fine faculty for ignoring and avoiding such things). No, what I object to most is something that most Christians unthinkingly embrace: the cuddlification of Almighty God.
In the weeks leading up to the Church’s celebration of the Nativity of the Lord, Christian gift shops, greeting cards, and homes abound with saccharine images of Christ as a sweet little baby, designed to make you go all gooey inside, to want to pick Him up, cuddle Him, chuck Him under the chin, and murmur, “Who’s a sweet little babykins, then?” Now, I find babies just as endearing as the next person, but I don’t think God became Man so that we would want to pinch his fat little cheeks. It is a terrible irony that by sentimentalizing babies, our culture has trivialized them: if babies are important primarily because of the way they make us feel, then we are just as free to abort them when we find them threatening as we are to gush over them when we find them cute. Similarly, when our Christmas preparations focus too much on the cute little baby in the manger (and not His true identity), we sentimentalize the Nativity of God-Made-Man and thereby run the risk of trivializing Him. (This trivialization would explain the proliferation of Nativity sets in which the figures are all cats or cupcakes or VeggieTale characters.)
We need to remember that God did not become an baby so that we would find him cuddly; he became a man so that he could die. At the heart of the Nativity is the paradox of the Incarnation: that He who is Mighty deliberately became weak so that he could share our troubles, our sorrow, our death. For me, the power and wonder of Christmas has always been found in this paradoxical truth, that the Infinite became Finite, the Immortal and Eternal, for a time, made Himself small and vulnerable. This is a truth that has always been difficult to accept or understand, but some ages have dealt with it better than our own. Today we tend to avoid discomfort of any kind – witness the proliferation of pills and potions widely available to dispel all pains mental and physical – so we prefer the cute, cuddly baby God of Christmas to the Mighty Judge who, as Advent constantly reminds us, is coming soon (forgetting that the two are the same). In the raw Middle Ages, however, people had not yet trivialized God; perhaps for this reason my favorite Christmas images and carols come from that time.
          Lately, I’ve been thinking particularly of a poem of the early Middle Ages, The Heliand (or Savior), also called The Saxon Gospel, a ninth-century retelling of the synoptic Gospels as an epic poem of God the Warrior-King. This poem was written for Saxons who had been forcibly converted by Charlemagne but found it difficult to embrace a god whom they found weak. The Saxons were a Germanic warrior race, who fiercely resisted being conquered by Charlemagne or forced to become Christians. The monk who wrote the Heliand sought to show that Christianity was a faith that was not incompatible with Saxon culture and values, and apparently he was successful in convincing them that the God of Christianity, despite His becoming a man, was not a puling weakling but a mighty ruler, a crafty king who knew how to outsmart and conquer his wily foe, Satan.
The Heliand opens with a song of creation that presents the Creator as a master spell-maker, the great sorcerer who merely by speaking the words of creation brings all things into being – as a modern hymn says: “God, Whose almighty Word chaos and darkness heard, and took their flight.” All of Creation, time, and even Fate itself work together to do His will, until the moment is ripe for God’s ultimate master plan to unfold, when He will for a time appear weak, but only so that he can fool his foe and win the ultimate victory. In this telling, Christ was not born in the household of an insignificant carpenter, but was the foster-son of Joseph, the scion of a line of great kings, and in this poem the herald angels who announce the new King’s arrival appear not to lowly shepherds but to the groomsmen guarding noble Joseph’s horses. The Infant, at His birth, is clothed not in swaddling bands, like any village brat, but in jeweled clothes befitting a king.
"Dream of the Rood" by MrVisions
on DeviantArt.com
Later in his life, as any great Saxon king would have done, Jesus attracts a band of noblemen who become his comitatus, the thanes of the king who serve him by choice, for honor, rather than under obligation. In the great day of battle, when Christ takes on the greatest foe, death itself, even the noblest and bravest of his thanes, Peter, quails before the power of the foe and deserts his King, much as Beowulf’s thanes deserted him when he faced a fire-breathing dragon. The Lord, however, carefully keeps His true identity veiled, appearing weak, because otherwise the Jews and the Romans would never dare to assault so great a warrior-king. In this way, He allows Himself to be taken prisoner and bound to a rood, but just as the Foe believes he has conquered Him, He escapes his bonds, breaking the chains of Death and leaping up victorious. Thus, as a medieval Christmas carol acclaims, perdidit spolia princeps infernorum, the prince of Hell forfeits his victory, the spoiler is despoiled.
Antony Esolen, in a recent essay on TheCatholicThing.com, says that “[t]he soul of poetry is not so much to make strange things familiar, but to make familiar things strange, so that we can really begin to see them.” Perhaps this is why I find poems like The Heliand such a bracing corrective to the modern, sentimentalized version of Christmas. By making God just another cute and cuddly baby, we run the risk of forgetting that he is the Man Who was born to die, the almighty Creator of everything that is, Whose power and craft alone could save us from the wiles of the devil and inexorable death.


Popular posts from this blog

Grace and Purification in Flannery O'Connor's “Revelation”

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Mystery, thrills and suspense from contemporary Catholic writers

Rerum Novarum in context

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

Epic poetry and the moral imagination

Zooming in on Ovid's acount of the Great Flood