Poets of the ages tell of Christ's birth with evocative words


Christmas – December 25, 2013
Isaiah 9.2-4 | Psalm 96 | Titus 2.11-14 | Luke 2.1-16

Ralph Himsl

December 23, 2013

While studying the readings for Christmas, I realized the poetry of the message they contained. Isaiah's words exult; the Psalm rejoices; Paul's letter to Titus wins for its intimacy.

As for Luke: he works the merits of simplicity. He deals with the essentials, leaving an invitation to fill in the details. Joseph and Mary, he tells us, went from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. He gives no measure of the distance they had to travel, Mary by donkey and "expecting a child" and Joseph on foot.

The Internet had the answer: 110 km direct, but walking would add an estimated 40 km. The spare note, "there was no place for them in the inn" typifies the discomforts they endured in the five – or six-day journey.

And what did they care, they who caused this disruption – Quirinius, the governor of Syria and Emperor Caesar Augustus? Not much.

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth. - Luke 2.7

'She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth.'

Luke 2.7

But such a story! Poets down the ages put their minds and pens to it.

In Upon Christ His Birth, Sir John Suckling contemplates Luke's desolate line, "There was no place for them in the inn."

"Strange news! A city full? Will none give way
to lodge a guest that comes not every day? . . .
Men's empty hearts: let's ask for lodging there.
But if they not admit us, then we'll say
Their hearts as well as inns are made of clay."

Ben Jonson in A Hymn on the Nativity of My Saviour, says

"What comfort by him do we win/
. . . To make us heirs of glory?
To see this babe, all innocence;
a martyr born in our defence;
Can man forget this story?"


In 1958, Katherine Davis and friends struck a chord with The Little Drummer Boy.

"I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.
Then he smiled at me – me and my drum."

It didn't happen, but we like to think that it could have.

Following a list of what awaits the Babe just born, in Christus Natus Est, Countee Cullen concludes in confident declaration,

"The manger still
Outshines the throne;
Christ must and will
Come to his own.
Hosannah! Christus natus est."


In Mary the German poet, Bertolt Brecht brushes away any illusions we might have about the trials of the journey:

"The night when she first gave birth
Had been cold. But in later years
She quite forgot
The frost in the dingy beams and the smoking stove
And the spasms of the afterbirth towards morning.
But above all she forgot the bitter shame
Common among the poor
Of having no privacy."

Give the last word to Sir John Betjeman, that 20th century Englishman of astonishing accomplishment.

In Christmas, after some bantering words on the response of our latter day society to Christmas he writes

"No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine."

(Ralph Himsl: luimeme@telusplanet.net)