the cave of Christmas
where the child of light
burns in the darkness
in the center of the earth.
Access is not easy.
You cannot just amble to a mantle,
note the craft of the crib child,
and return to the party for more eggnog.
You may see a figurine in this way,
but you will not find the child of light.
The center of the earth is not the surface.
You must journey
you need a guide.
Even the Wise Men had to risk
the treacherous courts of Herod
to consult the map of Scripture.
They knew that a star, no matter how bright,
could not take them all the way
It is true
that sometimes angels hover in the sky
and sing directions,
but they cannot be counted on
Besides, you are not one
to keep watch over a flock by night.
There is another pointer of the way,
a map of a man,
who when you try to read him,
Unexpected angels are pussycats
next to this lion,
a roar that once overrode Judea.
You may not heed
but you will hear
Some say this thunder is because his father
stumbled mute from the Holy of Holies,
tongue tied by an angel who was peeved
by the old man’s stubborn allegiance to biological laws.
The priest was silenced in the temple
because he thought flesh could stop God.
The son of the priest shouted in the wilderness
because he feared God would stop flesh.
His open mouth was an open warning.
His name is John,
a man who was a lamp,
at least that is what Jesus said,
“a burning and shining lamp.”
The implication is clear:
The lamp is a torch through the darkness
to find the Light of the World.
As the lamp comes closer to the Light,
its radiance is overwhelmed.
It is in the presence of a stronger shining.
It decreases as the Light increases.
Yet there is no comparison.
The child cannot be found by competition.
The lamp and the Light meet
in the mystery of communion.
The two become one
while remaining two.
Follow John and find Jesus.
Find Jesus and find the Illness of John.
But John is not so easy to follow.
He is no toady
He lacks senility
and does not work for pay
he is more guardian than guide,
more dragon at the gate than porter at the door,
more fire on the earth than lamp on a stand.
Opposite of the sought-after child in every way
The child is round,
this one has edges;
the child nurses on virgin’s milk,
this one crunches locusts;
the child is wrapped in swaddling clothes,
this one is rubbed raw by camel hair.
Yet they know one another
even exchange smiles.
They share a mystery,
this hairy man and smooth child.
Jesus came out of John
as surely as he came out of Mary.
John was the desert soil
in which the flower of Jesus grew.
John was the voice in the wilderness
who taught Jesus to hear the voice from the sky.
John would push sinners beneath the water
and Jesus would resurrect them on the waves.
John was the fast
who prepared for Jesus the feast.
No man ever less a shepherd than John,
yet loved by one.
If you are surprised that Jesus came from John,
imagine John’s prophetic puzzle
when the predicted “wrath to come” came
and he said, “Let’s eat!”
John expected an ax to the root of the tree
and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.
He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench.
When John said, “There is one among you
Whom you do not know,”
he spoke from experience.
So from prison
John sent his disciples to Jesus.
He will send you too.
Despite his reputation,
he is best at introductions.
It is simply who he is,
preparer, primer, pointer,
a tongue always on the verge of exclaiming,
His question was, “Are you the One Who Is to Come
or should we look for another)”
This arrow of a question was sent from prison
but the bow was bent in the desert
by “none greater born of woman”
who was awake before the sun,
watching the vipers flee before the morning
his eyes welcomed.
“Are you the One Who Is to Come”
is the question of John highway,
his road under construction,
hammer and pick and hardhat song,
“I have leveled a mountain
and raised a valley
to make even the path of the Lord!”
are the mountain
his sunburnt muscles
are slamming to cracked rock.
are the valley
his tattooed arms
are filling with broken earth.
He will trowel you to smooth,
and when there is no impediment,
when there is nothing in you
which would cause a child to trip,
you will yearn for someone to arrive
and ask the question
that guards the cave of Christmas,
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”
So do not go fearfully
into John’s wilderness,
beaten from civilization by others
or driven by your own self-loathing.
Go simply because it is the abode
of wild beasts and demons
and, given all you are,
you will most certainly feel at home.
Wrestle with the rages of the soul,
talk to the twistedness.
Try no tricks on him.
Parade no pedigree.
Who you know will not help you.
If the children of Abraham and stones
have equal standing in his eyes,
you will not impress him
with anything you pull from your wallet.
Also do not ready your brain for debate.
He is not much for talk.
He has washed his mind with sand.
Injunctions are his game.
If you have two coats or two loaves of bread,
Do not bully,
do not exploit,
do not falsely accuse.
Do not object that these actions are
Just do them.
you will be unencumbered,
yet lacking nothing,
freer to move, to bend.
The entrance to the cave is low.
John’s desert is the place between slavery and promise,
out of Egypt but not yet in the waters of the Jordan,
Your sojourn there will burn away
the last marks of the shackles
and you will stand unfettered.
You will be between the castle and the crowd,
between fine garments and reeds shaken by the wind.
You will not lord it over others
and you will not be pushed around.
Yes, and more.
But in the thrill of freedom
it will take you a moment to notice
what that more is.
In the emptiness of John’s desert
you will find yourself waiting,
like a bowl that waits for wine,
like a flute that waits for breath,
like a sentinel that waits for the dawn.
You are a highway ready for traffic,
and here comes One
who seems also to have been waiting,
waiting for the construction to be complete.
The more is arriving,
and there is only one question,
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”
“Go and tell John
what you see and hear.”
So they did.
The disciples of John returned on the night of Herod’s birthday
The music and laughter of the celebration
twisted down the stairs to the dungeon
beneath the earth.
They talked to John through the bars.
They could barely make him out
in the shadows.
“We saw a blind woman staring at her hand,
first the palm, then the back,
over and over again,
twisting it like a diamond in the sun,
weeping all the time and saying,
“I can see through tears! I can see through tears!”
We saw a lame man
bounce his granddaughter
on his knee.
We saw a leper
kiss her husband.
We saw a deaf boy
snap his fingers
next to his ear
We saw a dead girl
wake and stretch
and eat breakfast.
The poor we saw
were not poor.
Although there was no light in the dungeon,
there was a glow around John.
It softened the fierceness of his face
yet took no strength away
When he had preached on the banks of the Jordan,
they could not take their eyes off his fire.
Now this new light made them look down.
we would be blest
if these sights did not scandalize us.
John was silent.
When he spoke,
the words had no urgency.
There was no strain in his voice.
It was no longer
the voice in the wilderness.
“The guards tell me that Herod,
has promised Salome
half a kingdom
if she will dance for him.
Surely she will ask for me
for I am half a kingdom.
I can denounce a king
but I cannot enthrone one.
I can strip an idol of its power
but I cannot reveal the true God.
I can wash the soul in sand
but I cannot dress it in white.
I devour the Word of the Lord like wild honey
but I cannot lace his sandal.
I can condemn the sin
but I cannot bear it away
Behold, the lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world!
Yet he came to me
to go beyond me.
He entered the water
to rise out of it.
He knew I would know him when he came
even though I did not know him before he came.
The fulfillment is always more than the promise,
but if you hunger and thirst in the promise,
you will welcome the One Who Is Not You
as All You Are,
and tell Jesus
what you see and hear –
not scandalized but fulfilled,
witness to his coming.
When you told me
what you saw and heard,
I knew who I was:
the cleanser of eyes but not the sight that fills them,
the opener of ears but not the word that thrills them.
Yes, and more.
Friend of the Bridegroom.
It was love in the desert and I did not know it.
It was love by the river and I did not know it.
It is love in this cave and now I know it.
The guards clattered down the stairs,
their impotent swords drawn.
They pushed aside the disciples
and unlocked a dungeon of light
to find John dancing,
his feet moving to the long-ago memory
of womb kicks.
Who was about to lose his head to Herod
had lost his mind to God.
The cave of Christmas
in the center of the earth.
You will need a lamp for the journey
A man named John
is a step ahead of you.
His torch sweeps the ground
so that you do not stumble.
He brings you,
at your own pace,
to the entrance of the cave.
His smile is complete,
there is a sudden light,
but it does not hurt your eyes.
The darkness has been pushed back by radiance.
You feel like an underwater swimmer
who has just broken the surface of the Jordan
and is breathing in the sky
John is gone.
from whom the light is shining,
– John Shea, Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 174–83.
Seems to be something missing out of this line, Jason…:”note the of the crib child”.
Interesting, long, rather untidy poem, but full of unexpected insights and twists to familiar stories and scripture verses. Occasionally it seems unfinished, as though Shea was trying to get it all down in a bit of a hurry. But the good bits are definitely worth the skimming needed for the ‘unfinished’ stuff. Maybe the unfinished stuff fits better after several readings-through…?
Thanks for spotting and alerting me to the typo Mike. I’ve included the missing word. BTW: My love for this poem increases every time I read it. It’s not RS Thomas, to be sure, but it’s still a wonderfully-rich reflection.