St Mary’s Rotherhithe
December 24th 2006
4th Sunday of Advent
The Lord has spoken
If anyone should tell you that poetry is nothing more than a long-winded way of saying what could be put into many fewer words, then they are quite wrong – as we shall see in a minute.
The facts are almost exactly the opposite. One of the great advantages of poetry is that is says in a remarkably compact and easily-remembered form what it would take at least the same number of words of ordinary writing to say.
If you still doubt this let me give you a simple example. Take the well-known passage from the Christmas story about the angel and the shepherds in the Gospel according to St Luke.
Here is what St Luke tells us:
‘In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone round them.’ [42 words]
And here is the same in poetry:
. [23 words]
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around
Just over half the number of words to say the same thing!
Bearing that in mind let’s now take a look at the hymn which I have written and which is getting its world-premiere to-day in this church. In just four verses of six lines it provides a summary of two readings which will be heard in most Christian churches throughout the world on Christmas Day: They are taken from the first chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews and of St John’s Gospel.
[In what follows, the Latin words ‘Dominus locutus est’ mean ‘The Lord has spoken’]
At the dawning of creation
St John’s Gospel’s opening words are : ‘In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him.’
The Book of Job tells us that when God had created everything ‘the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy’. So we can learn something (but only something) about God by looking at his Creation. It will tell us that He is a wonderful designer, for instance, but it won’t tell us anything about His disposition towards us (or anything else in His creation). It would be just as reasonable to draw the conclusion from the fact that there is so much suffering in the world that its Creator was completely indifferent about the welfare of his creatures. Indeed that is precisely the conclusion that many people have drawn when they aren’t prepared to look into the matter any more closely than their admiration of the beauty of creation demands.
God, by prophets’ mouths appealing,
But now the writer to the Hebrews draws our attention to the fact that since mankind was able to think there have existed people to whom God has revealed Himself and spoken, and laid upon them the task of speaking to their fellow-men on His behalf. These people are called the Prophets. But the Prophets realised that they themselves were only the first part of his plan for Self-revelation. His plan for humankind was working up to something far more extensive and important, namely the moment in history when He Himself would become part of His own creation and become incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and be made man. This is what the opening of tomorrows New Testament lesson says: At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is.
See on earth, of lowly station,
St John goes on to say ‘The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth’. This is the Incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ, which is what the Festival of Christmas is all about.
But why should God choose to become incarnate? Well Hebrews tells us that he has destroyed the defilement of sin. The Prophets were clear in their own mind that we humans are separated from God in two different ways. One is that we are just different from Him. He is Spirit, we are flesh and blood, inspired, it is true, by the ability to respond to His love; but we are also totally separated from him by ‘the sin which besets us’. There can be no rapport between an infinite, perfect God and his finite sinful creatures unless somehow or other He makes it possible. Well, by becoming Man, and offering the One Perfect Sacrifice which takes away the sins of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ has reconciled us to God. As St Paul says ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself’.
Last, our deeds of dark defeated,
And this is our message, the Gospel of Redemption: ‘be reconciled’. We now go back to St John again. He tells us that although many people have in the past turned away from the salvation which He is offering us through faith in Jesus Christ and will continue to do so in the future, nevertheless ‘to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God’. In us, who are in the process of being saved, God’s work in creation will have been completed. We shall sit down at His table with Him in His Messianic Kingdom where He, our Host, will wait upon us because we have become sons of God by adoption and grace and will become fellow-heirs with Him of His heavenly inheritance where, as Hebrews says he has: ‘gone to take his place in heaven at the right hand of divine Majesty. So he is now as far above the angels as the title which he has inherited is higher than their own name.
There it all is – in a nutshell, so to speak. What it takes the two biblical writers, St John and Hebrews, nearly five hundred words to say, can be said in less than a quarter of that number of words in poetry.
So when people tell you that poetry is nothing but a long-winded way of saying what could have been put into many fewer words of ordinary speech – just don’t believe them!
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