Or are you merely a story told in the dark,
A child’s drawing of barn and star?
Each year you are born again. It is no remedy
For what we go on doing to each other,
For history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.
Here I am again, huddled in hope. For what
Do I wait? – I know you only as something missing,
And loved beyond reason.
As a word in my mouth I cannot embody.
On the snow-dusted field this morning – an etching
Of mouse tracks declares the frenzy of its hunger.
The plodding dawn sun rises to another day’s
One warm hour. I’m walking to the iced-in local pond
Where my neighbors have sat through the night
Waiting for something to find their jigged lure.
The sky is paste white. Each bush and tree keeps
Its cold counsel. I’m walking head-on into a wind
That forces my breath back into my mouth.
Like rags of black cloth, crows drape a dead oak.
When I pass under them, their cries rip a seam
In the morning. Last week a life long friend told me,
There’s no such thing as happiness. It’s ten years
Since he found his son, then a nineteen-year old
Of extraordinary grace and goodness, curled up
In his dormitory room, unable to rise, to free
Himself of a division that made him manic and
Depressed, and still his son struggles from day to day,
The one partial remedy a dismal haze of drugs.
My friend hopes these days for very little – a stretch of
Hours, a string of a few days when nothing in his son’s life
Goes terribly wrong. This is the season of sad stories:
The crippling accident, the layoffs at the factory,
The family without a car, without a house, without money
For presents. The sadder the human drama, the greater
Our hope, or so the television news makes it seem
With its soap-opera stories of tragedy followed up
With ones of good will – images of Santas’ pots filling up
At the malls, truckloads of presents collected for the shelters,
Or the family posed with their special-needs child
In front of a fully equipped van given by the local dealership.
This is the season to keep the less fortunate in sight,
To believe that generosity will be generously repaid.
We’ve strung colored lights on our houses and trees,
And lit candles in the windows to hold back the dark.
For what do we hope? – That our candles will lead you
To our needs? That your gift of light will light
These darkest nights of the year? That our belief
In our own righteousness will be vindicated?
The prophet Amos knew the burden of our coming.
The day of the Lord is darkness, he said, darkness, not light,
As if someone went into a house and rested a hand against a wall,
And was bitten by a snake. Amos knew the shame of
What we fail, over and over, to do, the always burning
Image of what might be. Saint Paul, too, saw
The whole creation groaning for redemption.
And will you intercede with sighs too deep for words
Because you love us in our weakness, because
You love always, suddenly and completely, what is
In front of you, whether it is a lake or leper.
Because you come again and again to destroy the God
We keep making in our own image. Will we learn
To pray: May our hearts be broken open. Will we learn
To prepare a space in which you might come forth,
In which, like a bolt of winter solstice light,
You might enter the opening in the stones, lighting
Our dark tumulus from beginning to end?
All last night the tatter of sleet, ice descending,
Each tree sheathed in ice, and then, deeper
Into the night, the shattering cracks and fall
Of branches being pruned by gusts of wind.
It is the first morning after the longest night,
Dawn colorless, the sun still cloud-silvered.
Four crows break the early stillness, an apocalypse
Of raucous squawks. My miniature four horsemen
Take and eat whatever they can in the field
Outside my door: a deer’s leg my dog has dragged
Home. Above them, the flinty sun has at last fired
A blue patch of sky, and suddenly each ice-transfigured
Trees shines. Each needle of pine, each branch
Of ash, throws off sparks of light. Once,
A rabbi saw a spark of goodness trapped inside
Each evil, the very source of life for that evil –
A contradiction not to be understood, but suffered,
The rabbi explained, though the one who prays
And studies Torah will be able to release that spark,
And evil, having lost its life-giving source, will cease.
When I finally open my door and walk out
Into the field, every inch of my skin seems touched
By light. So much light cannot be looked at:
My eyelids slam down like a blind.
All morning I drag limbs into a pile. By noon,
The trees and field have lost their shine. I douse
The pile of wood with gas, and set it aflame,
Watching the sparks disappear in the sky.
This is the night we have given for your birth.
After the cherished hymns, the prayers, the story
Of the one who will become peacemaker,
Healer of the sick, the one who feeds
The hungry and raises the dead,
We light small candles and stand in the dark
Of the church, hoping for the peace
A child knows, hoping to forget career, mortgage,
Money, hoping even to turn quietly away
From the blind, reductive selves inside us.
We are a picture a child might draw
As we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.
Yet, while each of us tries to inhabit the moment
That is passing, you seem to live in-between
The words we fill with our longing.
The time has come
To admit I believe in the simple astonishment
Of a newborn.
And also to say plainly, as Pascal knew, that you will live
In agony even to the end of the world,
Your will failing to be done on earth
As it is in heaven.
Come, o come Emmanuel,
I am a ghost waiting to be made flesh by love
I am too imperfect to bear.
– Robert Cording, ‘Advent Stanzas’, in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (ed. Philip Zaleski; Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), 18–22.