Sabbath Day Thoughts
On this New Year’s Day, I invite us to celebrate the birth of Christ and ponder his calling for our lives with some of my favorite poems of this season.
Susan Elizabeth Howe is a poet, playwright, and editor. Her poems have a keen attention to ordinary details that hint toward sacred truths. Her favorite themes explore women’s lives and the natural world through the lens of faith. Susan says, “Imagination . . . can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.” This poem was inspired by the promise found in a fortune cookie, “Your luck is about to change.”
“Your Luck Is About to Change” Susan Elizabeth Howe
(A fortune cookie)
Ominous inscrutable Chinese news
to get just before Christmas,
considering my reasonable health,
marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,
career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.
Not bad, considering what can go wrong:
the bony finger of Uncle Sam
might point out my husband,
my own national guard,
and set him in Afghanistan;
my boss could take a personal interest;
the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.
Still, as the old year tips into the new,
I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking
his legs in the air. I won’t give in
to the dark, the sub-zero weather, the fog,
or even the neighbors’ Nativity.
Their four-year-old has arranged
his whole legion of dinosaurs
so they, too, worship the child,
joining the cow and sheep. Or else,
ultimate mortals, they’ve come to eat
ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,
then savor the newborn babe.
In Poetry, December 2002, p. 153.
Langston Hughes was an innovator of jazz poetry and one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a descendant of the elite, politically active Langston family, free people of color who worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. Hughes wrote from an early age, moving to New York City as a teen to attend Columbia University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, essays, and non-fiction. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. In 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. As you read, “Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York,” attend to his use of the word “almost” and consider what Hughes might be saying.
“Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York” Langston Hughes
The Christmas trees are almost all sold
And the ones that are left go cheap
The children almost all over town
Have almost gone to sleep.
The skyscraper lights on Christmas Eve
Have almost all gone out
There’s very little traffic
Almost no one about.
Our town’s almost as quiet
As Bethlehem must have been
Before a sudden angel chorus
Sang PEACE ON EARTH
GOOD WILL TO MEN!
Our old Statue of Liberty
Looks down almost with a smile
As the Island of Manhattan
Awaits the morning of the Child.
In Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Press, 1994.
Ann Weems was a gifted and prolific Presbyterian poet with seven books and collections of poems written for use in worship. Ann was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and was married to a Presbyterian minister. She served as an elder with her local church. Ann believed that writing was “a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer in which one can imagine what might be and in the writing help it become true.” She was sometimes referred to as the Presbyterian Poet Laureate.
“Boxed” Ann Weems
I must admit to a certain guilt
about stuffing the Holy Family into a box
in the aftermath of Christmas.
It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when,
each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others)
from a year’s imprisonment
boxed in the dark of our basement.
Out they come, one by one,
struggling through the straw,
last year’s tinsel still clinging to their robes.
Nevertheless, they appear, ready to take their place again
in the light of another Christmas.
The Child is first
because he’s the one I’m most reluctant to box.
Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges,
apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down
to avoid the crush of the lid.
His mother, dressed eternally in blue,
still gazes adoringly,
in spite of the fact that
her features are somewhat smudged.
Joseph has stood for eleven months,
holding valiantly what’s left of his staff,
broken twenty Christmases ago
by a child who hugged a little too tightly.
The Wise Ones still travel,
though not quite so elegantly,
the standing camel having lost its back leg
and the sitting camel having lost one ear.
However, gifts intact they are ready to move.
The shepherds, walking or kneeling,
sometimes confused with Joseph
(who wears the same dull brown),
tumble forth, followed by three sheep
in very bad repair.
There they are again,
not a grand set surely,
but one the children (and now the grandchildren)
can touch and move about to reenact that silent night.
When the others return,
we will wind the music box on the back of the stable
and light the Advent candles
and go once more to Bethlehem.
And this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away,
we’ll be more careful that the Peace and Goodwill
are not also boxed for another year!
In Kneeling in Bethlehem. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1980, p. 87.
The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd is a retired Presbyterian minister, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York City. Shepherd has fifteen books of poetry and has published over 600 poems and articles in publications both sacred and secular. He has preached and lectured at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, and other universities, colleges and seminaries. In 2000, while I was serving Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, Rev. Shepherd joined us for a special 3-hour-long Good Friday service that featured his poetry. As you read “Forest Snowfall” listen for his description of the Kingdom of God, which dwells within the world, there for us to see and serve, if only we have the courage.
“Forest Snowfall” J. Barrie Shepherd
It is as if the light that is to come
had taken on a flake-like form and substance
laid itself, in silhouette, along, against,
the windward part
of every naked trunk and branch.
The ground below lies cloaked,
each blade of grass or bracken
with its glistening garment,
so that, even at the darkest hour last night,
a luminescence shone as if reflected
from whatever burns within.
Might the bright, promised realm
lie here and now revealed,
its last impediment
my faltering fear to enter in?
In The Christian Century, Dec. 19, 2019. Accessed online at christiancentury.org.
Joyce Rupp is well-known for her work as a writer, international retreat leader, and conference speaker. She is the author of twenty-eight bestselling books on spirituality. A member of the religious order known as the Servites or Servants of Mary since the age of nineteen, Joyce received the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church in 2004. She has played a significant role as a “midwife” for women’s spirituality. In 2007, I attended “Writing from the Soul,” a writer’s workshop with Joyce in Chicago.
“A Christmas Blessing” (responsive) Joyce Rupp
May there be harmony in all your relationships. May sharp words, envious thoughts, and hostile feelings be dissolved.
May you give and receive love generously. May this love echo in your heart like the joy of church bells on a clear December day.
May each person who comes into your life be greeted as another Christ. May the honor given the Babe of Bethlehem be that which you extend to every guest who enters your presence.
May the hope of this sacred season settle in your soul. May it be a foundation of courage for you when times of distress occupy your inner land.
May the wonder and awe that fills the eyes of children be awakened within you. May it lead you to renewed awareness and appreciation of whatever you too easily take for granted.
May the bonds of love for one another be strengthened as you gather around the table of festivity and nourishment.
May you daily open the gift of your life and be grateful for the hidden treasures it contains.
May the coming year be one of good health for you. May you have energy and vitality. May you care well for your body, mind, and spirit.
May you keep your eye on the Star within you and trust this Luminescent Presence to guide and direct you each day.
May you go often to the Bethlehem of your heart and visit the One who offers you peace. May you bring this peace into our world.
In Out of the Ordinary, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000, p. 36.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. He was the fourth of twelve children. His brilliant but mercurial father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a country clergyman, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and opium; his mother was the daughter of a vicar. Plagued by poverty, Alfred never graduated from Cambridge University. Despite hardship, he persisted in his efforts as a poet. In 1850, Queen Victoria appointed Alfred Poet Laureate, a distinction that he held until his death in 1892. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. “Ring Out Wild Bells” expresses the fervent hope for a better year-to-come and our ability to shape the year with the choice for truth, right, and love.
“Ring Out, Wild Bells” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
In In Memoriam. London: Edward Moxson, 1850.
May we go forth into the New Year to “Ring in the love of truth and right, ring in the common love of good.”
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights above.
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
3 Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created,
6 and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
9 you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
old men and children.
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.
Praise the Lord.