William Edelen: Christmas as poetry…


The Contrary Minister

There was always one worship service, above all others, that I loved doing in my church. It was the Christmas Eve candlelight service at 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. with standing room only. In my Congregational church I made it a celebration of the human spirit, with song and dance, poetry and literature, meditation and joy.

I will never forget the spectacular ballet dancer doing Tai Chi to Gounod’s “Sanctus” as sung by Jessye Norman. The dancer said that the first time she practiced it she just stopped and cried, it was that moving for her.

We always closed with all lights out and everyone holding candles and singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” led by guitarists playing in the balcony, like the original Tyrolean alpine folk melody. The organ would then come in with such glorious chords we all had a near “out of body” experience. Some skeptics would always say to me “I can’t sing that stuff. I don’t believe any of that.” And I would tell them, and the congregation, “I don’t believe it either as factual or historical theological statements. That’s not what it is all about. You miss the point if you do not experience the beauty of the myth, a solstice myth that goes back by thousands of years before Jesus was ever born.”

Our bloodstream runs into the veins of the gods, Greeks and Romans, Egyptian and Persians and barbarians in the Germanic forest. For thousands of years before Jesus, Greeks and Romans sang their hymns in honor of their gods and goddesses at the winter solstice and celebrated with gifts and singing, drinking and decorations, with flowers, palms, mistletoe and holly.

I would suggest that the congregation see life as a poem and the solstice season as poetry, and suggest that they picture themselves as participating in the poetry through the celebration of ritual. That is the purpose of mythology and what it is all about. THEY GOT IT. They understood it and loved it as a celebration of families and love, sharing and joy, meditation and mystery, with a consciousness of the sacred in life and the holy dimensions of existence.

George Santayana, one of the most brilliant teachers at Harvard University, and one of the great poets and philosophers of our time, was an agnostic. Yet every Christmas Eve, he and his wife attended the midnight candlelight mass. His friends teased him: “George, you know you do not believe any of that Jesus stuff. Why do you go?” “Ah” replied Santayana “but it feeds my spirit.” He got it. He was not interested in the absurdities and stupidity of archaic doctrines and creeds. He was a poet, and he and his wife were participating in the poetry of life through a solstice ritual that could be over 25,000 years old.

D. H. Lawrence made the observation that there are two kinds of truth: a truth of facts and a truth of truth. A truth of facts has to do with names, dates, places and so forth. But a truth of truth is revealed to us through mythology, legend and folklore. The truth of truth has to do with the inner world of the imagination and emotions. They reveal the inner shape and contour of our minds, our longings, needs and our spirits and soul where we live and dream and hope and imagine and create. There is an inner world where we create our own truth. We take the myths, folklore and legends of an ancient time and rewrite them according to our own needs, hopes and fears for our own time. Truths of Truth will not qualify as facts. There are those who want us to live without myth and poetry and feelings and emotion. They want us to live only by the truth of facts. What they would substitute is technology, science and ideologies as a means of discovering meaning and celebrating values. To live only by truths of facts can impoverish and stunt our lives and as Carl Jung reminded us is “a disease of our time.” A virus of the mind.

For instance, many times have I stood on the banks of Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming in both the pre-dawn and sunset hours. I have gazed across that placid, clear lake to the opposite shore where the Grand Teton rises, soaring almost vertically to over 10,000 feet and guarded on each side by the other slightly lesser peaks. Tumbling down into Jenny Lake, gently brushing the base of the Teton and making a joyful noise is the water whose origin was the snow above Lake Solitude, high in the high country where I have often hiked. Now, an analyst is quite correct in saying that this lake, the water, is nothing more than two parts of hydrogen to one part of oxygen. That is an important truth of facts. And this hydrogen and oxygen combined is merely obeying the law of gravity as it pushes igneous rocks out of the way, or goes around them. That is true and factual. An analyst is quite correct in saying that these Tetons are granite consisting chiefly of crystalline quartz, mica and feldspar. Those are truths of facts and very important. But, to stop there is to impoverish my life. Something else, another truth is also there and is truth that is more than analysis. That “something” else is of my heart, emotions, mind, spirit and soul. It has to do with reflections, receptivity, appreciation, insight, responsiveness and sensitivity to beauty and feeling, to a truth of truth that has often left me breathless and with moist eyes. And so I know that December the 25th has nothing factual or historical to do with Jesus, even as I know that Jenny Lake is only hydrogen and oxygen. I know that “virgin birth” and “stars” and “shepherds” and all the other biblical Christmas stories were common mythological themes, or motifs, that can be found in all the other religious traditions of that part of the world. Other virgin births celebrated during the solstice period included: Marduk, Osiris, Horus, Isis, Mithra, Saturn, Sol, Apollo, Serapis and Huitzilopochi. I know those are truths of facts.

But, the truth of truth that speaks to my heart is the joy of celebrations with the love of family and friends, and bringing back to our memory the truth that we are all children of the same Source and the same Mystery. Life, so called, is only a brief interlude between two great Mysteries which are yet One. This season reminds me of spiritual insights that are a truth of truth and that touch the depths of my being, my existence, more profoundly than any truth of facts.

This Solstice season is poetry, and you are a part of the poem. May the poetry of life fill your hours and days. That is my wish for you.