Putting the Poetry Back in Christmas
Having a conversation with Malcolm Guite is one of the richest and most pleasurable human experiences to be had. An accomplished writer, Anglican priest, musician and Life Fellow at Girton College of the University of Cambridge, Guite embodies a particularly British style of warmth and coziness. As we spoke, he pulled out a pipe, filled it with tobacco and puffed thoughtfully while reciting the verses of various poets from memory. If you took Bilbo Baggins, combined him with Gandalf, then threw in a dash of rock star and spiritual muse, you’d get someone like Guite.
One of my favorite collections of poetry is his 2015 book “Waiting on the Word,” which focuses in part on Advent, a Christian liturgical season that begins four Sundays before Christmas. As Christians around the world begin our third week of Advent, I spoke to Guite about this church season, his work and the revelatory power of poetry. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Why is Advent important to you?
I think the first thing to understand is the wisdom that is embedded in the liturgical calendar and that way of sacralizing time. Advent is meant to be to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. It’s always been the wisdom of the church to have a fast before a feast, to have this time of holding back and restraint so that you really appreciate and understand the reasons for the joy and the feasting when it comes.
The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming.” The church saw that preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas could also be a way of looking to that larger hope, which is the final coming of Jesus, the day when, at last, the earth will be filled with the glory of God. And in my book I said, well, I think there’s a third “coming,” a kind of continuous coming. We all experience a series of Advents. My prayer life and spirituality is very much focused on the Eucharist. So for me, every time I hold out my hands and the wafer is placed there and I receive him, that’s an advent. And in fact, that’s actually also Christmas. It’s an incarnation. He chooses the humble form of the bread as he chose the humble form of the baby to be his body.
Christmas became very thoroughly commercialized, and shops realized that they could use it to sell more goods, so they competed with each other to be the first ones to mention Christmas. Then, the entire period of Advent was swamped with kind of trivial fling and bling and everybody’s calendars filled up. Instead of being quieter and more reflective, then finally experiencing what G.K. Chesterton called the “submerged sunrise of wonder” at the birth of the Christ Child, we were suddenly assailed on all sides by commercial pressures.
But we can resist it. We can create rituals at home and inward spaces and times of reading that protect a certain space against all of that. Not because we’re against light and parties. You really want the light and the parties when they come, but you also want, spiritually, the contrast.
A traditional part of Advent that people may be less familiar with is the O Antiphons. In your book, you write a poem for each Antiphon. Can you describe what these are and how have they been part of Advent?
An antiphon is something that is sung antiphonally — a call and response between singers.
The idea was for those seven nights leading up to Christmas, to call on Jesus by all these wonderful titles, “O wisdom,” “O light,” “O key.”
They’re called O Antiphons because they all begin with O, which is exclamatory. It’s evocative. The “O” announces that you are now like a supplicant addressing somebody. So you normally expect a name; you might have said, “O Susan, could you go and get the washing in?” We expect a name, and then what we get is a name, but it’s a name that is itself a poetic aspect of who Christ is.
If you can imagine them in illuminated letters in a breviary, the book that the monks would have had, there had been this great big O. And then they would have done the first word of the title of Christ in a beautiful capital. So it would have said O Sapientia. O Adonai. O Radix. O Clavis. As we would say now, “O Wisdom,” “O Lord,” “O Root,” “O Key,” “O Light,” “O King” and finally on Christmas Eve, “O Emmanuel.”
All these beautiful titles for Jesus in the Antiphons are drawn from the Hebrew scriptures. I think that’s really important. Somebody did an imaginative, poetic reading of the great poetry of the scripture.
When you look at all those capital letters on Christmas Eve, and you look at the capitals reading backward, it actually spells a Latin sentence. It says ERO CRAS, which means “I will come tomorrow.”
If you really want to appreciate the coming, you have to get yourself imaginatively into that place of semidarkness and anticipation. The antiphons do that in spades.
You have said that imagination is “a truth-bearing faculty.” What do you mean by that?
There’s a hierarchy between information, knowledge and wisdom. And reason is very good at finding and categorizing information. But reason has almost no access to wisdom at all. Counter to that are much earlier insights probably best expressed by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He says: “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”
That suggests that imagination is a way of knowing. And it’s a way of knowing and intuiting and feeling we might have missed entirely if the poet or the artist or the painter or the musician hadn’t bodied it forth.
Imagination came to be considered, strictly speaking, made up. The presupposition was that all the things that we care about that have now been relegated to so-called subjectivity, like love and passion and beauty, somehow don’t exist in the same way that the atoms in a cup exist.
Earlier philosophers and some of those philosophers in Enlightenment who tried to resist this had a different notion. They said imagination is not simply about making things up. It’s about synthesizing everything. It’s about seeing the whole. C.S. Lewis, much later in his life, said that reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.
I don’t think we have to choose between reason and imagination. I don’t think we have to choose between science and religion. I don’t think we have to choose between serious intellectual inquiry and deeply held faith. I think these things are enfolded aspects, each depending on primal ways of knowing. To do theology well, we must bring the poets to the table along with the theologians and listen to what they say.
There is something about truth that is paradoxical. And poets — in a way that I don’t see with theologians or scientists sometimes — are very comfortable in that tension. Can you talk about the paradox of Advent?
Advent is paradoxical in itself. It’s a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting is strangely rich and fulfilling. And it’s a season that looks back to the first coming, but only in order to look now at the other comings and also forward at the last coming.
I wrote these Advent poems in Advent. I helped to lead a kind of spiritual seekers group in my church in Cambridge, which was completely open. It wasn’t just for believers in Christianity. It was specifically for people who didn’t have a faith but were searching or looking. And we had representatives of various faiths. I decided that I would take the key images of the seven O Antiphons and make them a theme.
It struck me that all of these were hugely beautiful, resonant, universal images. In fact, I didn’t say, “These are all titles of Christ.” I just said, “Let’s talk about these.” At the very end, as it happens, I mentioned that these are titles of Christ. And people were astonished because they didn’t realize that was such a rich thing.
I’m not going to rush to the answer. I’m going to treasure the question. I’m going to stay with the need. And I’m going to reflect week by week on each of these things. I’m going to say, “O wisdom come. O Lord come. O Root come.” Why am I so rootless? Why am I drifting around? Don’t I need to put some kind of deep root down? But there’s no point of putting a root down into just shifting sand. Is there good ground anywhere? Finally, on Christmas Eve we get to the name Emmanuel and we get to the promise that God is coming. By then, at least we know who we’re looking for and why we’re looking for him.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”