Waiting on the Word: Anne Ridler’s ‘Christmas and Common Birth’

Editor’s Note: For our third Advent reflection on Malcolm Guite’s, Waiting on the Word (Canterbury Press, 2015), Kevin Antlitz reflects upon Anne Ridler’s ‘Christmas and Common Birth’ and the importance of the ‘flesh’ in Christian theology and anthropology.



Christmas and Common Birth
Anne Ridler

Christmas declares the glory of the flesh:
And therefore a European might wish
To celebrate it not at midwinter but in spring, when physical life is strong,
When the consent to live is forced even on the young,
Juice is in the soil, the leaf, the vein,
Sugar flows to movement in limbs and brain.
Also before a birth, nourishing the child
We turn again to the earth
With unusual longing – to what is rich, wild,
Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened
In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns;
Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent cones
(While the fir wood stands waiting; the beech wood aspiring,
each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring
with scent sight sound indivisible in song.

Yet if you think again
It is good that Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year
That might wish to sleep ever.
For birth is awaking, birth is effort and pain;
And now at midwinter are hints, inklings
(Sodden primrose, honeysuckle greening)
That sleep must be broken.
To bear new or life or learn to live is an exacting joy:
The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way
It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.
For any birth makes an inconvenient demand;
Like all holy things
It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;
Freedom it brings: we should welcome release
From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.

So Christ comes,
At the iron senseless time, comes
To force the glory into frozen veins:
His warmth makes
Green life glazed in the pool, wakes
All calm and crystal trance with the living pains.

And each year
In seasonal growth is good – year
That lacking love is a stale story at best
By God’s birth
Our common birth is holy; birth
Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.

I’d like to begin by first noting that poetry is meant to be read aloud. It is more to be heard than seen. If you at first read through the poem silently, I invite you to go back through and read it aloud slowly, paying attention to how the sound gives life to the words on the page.

I find ‘Christmas and Common Birth’ by Anne Ridler (1912-2001) to be an especially enjoyable poem to read aloud. You can get a sense of it as Ridler wraps up the first long-line stanza: the poem begins to sing so vividly you can smell it:

We turn again to the earth
With unusual longing – to what is rich, wild,
Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened
In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns;
Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent cones
(While the fir wood stands waiting; the beech wood aspiring,
each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring
with scent sight sound indivisible in song.

This poem is a fine example of the focus on cadence and musicality typical in her work. [1] As Guite points out in his always illuminating commentary, the poem only becomes more melodious as ‘the paradox of Life coming in midwinter, light in darkness, glory through flesh, transformation through “living pains”, is given a memorable musical expression’ in the final two stanzas.

There is a lot going on in this poem. Guite is right to say that one cannot fully appreciate the poem without attending to how Ridler ruminates on the connections of the seasons of the year with the seasons of one’s spiritual life. Likewise, Ridler brings the Incarnation to life through her treatment of a mother expecting and birthing a child. In the changing of seasons and delivery of a baby, fresh biological life emerges through types of what may be called death. This pattern is mirrored in the life of faith. There is much to chew on here.

That said, what I am particularly drawn to are the bookends of the poem with their bold pronouncements that the Incarnation glorifies and dignifies humanity.

The poem begins with an absolutely sensational first line: ‘Christmas declares the glory of the flesh.’ Given Ridler’s Christian faith and the way in which the poem otherwise peddles in paradox, it is no stretch to suggest she is playing with the swirl of expectations and overtones of the theologically charged biblical word ‘flesh.’

Given its range of uses, flesh or sarx in the Greek, is a particularly complex and controversial term in the New Testament. [1] While not universally employed in a negative sense, on the whole, it is a concept with overtly negative theological connotations: weakness; susceptibility to corruption, perversion, and distortion; enslavement to sin; subjection to death; opposition to the Spirit. This is especially true in the Pauline epistles, most notably in Romans and Galatians.

This being the case, one is not expecting Ridler’s first line. One may reasonably anticipate something like ‘Christmas declares the glory of Jesus,’ or ‘all flesh has fallen short of the glory of God.’ These would fit more comfortably into our boxes. But this is a disruptive poem, making it a perfectly fitting poem for Advent. This poem helpfully complicates how we tend to conceive of things.

This, precisely, is one of the beauties of poetry. A good poem invites the reader to slow down. It draws you in, focuses your attention, tilts your head, and provides the opportunity to imagine the world afresh.

As it turns out, the suggestion that ‘Christmas declares the glory of the flesh’ is not wrong at all, only unexpected. Her treatment of ‘the flesh’ is surprising and happens to be profoundly on the mark, theologically speaking. Her poem provides a helpful corrective, setting straight two common misconceptions of what it means to be human.

The first misconception deals with the meaning and value of the physical in relation to the spiritual. Ridler is speaking against the age-old, ever-popular gnostic heresy. There are numerous species of the weed of Gnosticism. Suffice it to say Gnosticism suggests the physical is inherently bad, imprisoning the spiritual and dragging it down. Physical existence is actually a barrier to the ultimate goal of some disembodied heavenly existence. Flesh here can be understood as the physical. Playing on John 1:14 (‘the Word became flesh’), Ridler’s stunning first line contradicts this Gnostic tendency. Christmas declares the glory of the physical, of the flesh. Not only did God create the physical world and call it “good,” the Word of God glorifies and dignifies the physical, once and for all, by becoming flesh.

The second misconception deals with how humanity relates to divinity. It is a common error to consider it inappropriate to speak of the glory of humans, as if this is somehow an affront to God. This line of thinking assumes that the glory of God and the glory of human beings are necessarily in competition. But this is not indicative of God’s design in creation. Seneca famously wrote, “Errare humanum est,” to err is human. Seneca was wrong. Erring does not constitute us; it makes us less human. The Bible maintains a higher anthropology (which is also why it takes sin so seriously). When in our proper place, under God and over creation, humans are crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8).

To be sure, in the fallen world, flesh is flawed and our bones are out of joint. But this is not the way it ought to be. This is precisely the why of the Incarnation. In a time when death and darkness reign Christ comes to bring light and life. In a world that is always winter but never Christmas (to borrow from Lewis), Christ comes. As Ridler writes:

So Christ comes,
At the iron senseless time, comes
To force the glory into frozen veins:

In winter, the light of Christ forces glory into dead, frozen veins and brings new life. What once was common, base, accursed becomes blessed, honorable, and dignified. Christ comes and restores the image of God in us. The condescension of the Word elevates us. This begins to touch upon the mystery of the Incarnation. As Athanasius wrote sixteen centuries ago: Jesus was made man that we might be made God. [3]

Our birth is grafted into the birth of the God-man. The first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, gives us access to our own lost humanity.

By God’s birth
Our common birth is holy; birth
Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.

Christmas declares the glory of the flesh because the Incarnation of the Word opens up for us the possibility to attain our full humanity, free from sin, free to obey. The glory of the flesh is inseparable from the glory of God. As Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in the second century: “Gloria Dei est vivens homo,” the glory of God is a living human, fully alive in the light and life and love of Christ. [4]

 

 


[1] Obituary of Anne Ridler, The Guardian, October 15, 2001.
[2] For a helpful discussion on “flesh” in the Pauline corpus see James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 62-73.
[3] Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, 54.3.
[4] Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, IV, 20, 7.

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