Incarnation — from The Nativity to The Last Supper — and the Poet’s Gift

 

     Both at Christmas (The Nativity) and on Good Friday (before Easter Sunday) we celebrate the Word made Flesh when God became Man in Bethlehem and when Christ instituted the sacrament of The Last Supper in Jerusalem. Many theologians for hundreds of years have written about these mysteries. and much blood has been spilt in religious wars and persecutions over these matters. Reason can only take us so far in understanding such things, and we should certainly follow Reason (a gift of God) until it finds it can go no further. Beyond reason, lie faith and hope and along with these that special kind of love called Charity — a selfless giving of the self, even unto death, in the service of others.

     How can a young virgin be with child by a spirit (The Holy Spirit), and what did Jesus mean at The Last Supper when he called the Bread his Body and the Wine his Blood? What does “is” mean when Jesus says of the bread “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me” and of the wine, “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22: 19-20, King James Version).

     Are we too understand that in the bread and in the wine Jesus’ actual physical body and blood are present under the aspects (also called “accidents”) of bread and wine, or is it his spirit alone that is present, or is this only plain bread and wine that in a public ritual help us remember — “this do in remembrance of me” — Christ’s once-and-for-all-time sufficient sacrifice on the Cross?

     We Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the US) tend to pause before these mysteries and live with both belief and a degree of uncertainty about what is really happening when we receive the elements (the bread and the wine). A poem attributed to Queen  Elizabeth I (1553-1603), who ruled England in a time of religious conflict and division when The Anglican church was emerging, says it well:

 

He was the Word that spake it.                   [He = Christ; Word = the Divine Logos; spake = spoke]

He took the bread and brake it.                   [brake = broke]

And what his word did make it

I do believe and take it.

 

And what has any of this to do with poetry and the poet? Poems use images — words that refer to things we can perceive with one or another of the five senses in such a way as to make the image-word into a symbol — a word that, as presented in the poem, carries significance beyond its literal meaning.

As a simple example, the word “rose” can be used to refer not only to a flower but to a beautiful young woman as in Robert Burns’ poem “My love is like a red, red rose.” Such implanting or evoking of meaning inside an image is a form of incarnation — the Word made Flesh. Thus the poet, whatever his or her personal religious belief (or unbelief) may be, nonetheless partakes — and invites the reeder to partake — in a form like that of the mystery Queen Elizabeth I pauses before so courteously, discreetly, and humbly in the poem above.

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As a closing comment, I would add that as a conservative Anglican Christian I sometimes find myself at odds with certain contemporary practices of my church. Those concerns can be saved another blog. For now, I would only say that the Episcopal practice of inviting all baptized Christians to receive communion — to eat the bread and drink the wine — regardless of denominational affiliation — seems to me to go very deeply into the mystery of Christ’s life on earth and his eternally present love.

I have a small hand-colored religious card that shows children of today kneeling before the Christ child in the manger. The simple caption reads: “He became what we are to make us what he is.” In a way, Christ, who died on the Cross with the poetry of Psalm 22:1 on his lips, is the Ultimate Poet and the Final Poem. Through His incarnation, eternity rhymes with time.

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