Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Oxen - some thoughts from a few years back that still seem relevant

We're in the midst of trying to "do" Christmas here at last:  setting up Andre's locally-famous front-yard trains, bringing out the ornaments, attempting to make some cookies...  and I've been ambushed by tears and the feeling of simply going limp and numb in the face of the layer-upon-layer of memories, both good and bad, of Christmases past.

I thought I'd share something I wrote for my beloved choir folks, for our mid-rehearsal break, when someone from the choir reads a scripture and shares a thought.  My choir peeps were incredibly tolerant of some of my longer pieces back in those days.  This is from 2006, when I still lived my half-asleep existence: the ever-cheerful housewife, and mother of 4 small kids...  Even so, it feels somehow relevant today, if only for Hardy's touching poem.

(Devotional on "The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy) 

[1] [2] 

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
-Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

I must confess, this year's Christmas music is not giving me those lovely warm-fuzzy moments, tears springing to my eyes, that the music of other years has done.  But, like other grown-up tastes, The Hodie  ( a choral piece with orchestra, choruses and soloists, by Ralph Vaughan Williams)  is beginning to grow on me in a way that I know I will eventually find very satisfying.  Like I do every year at the choir retreat in October, I read through the texts of our concert work, looking for a lovely verse to quote in my annual Christmas letter. I eventually found one, but it took longer this year than other years.  However, Christmas cards aside, the first time I read through the poetic texts for this work, this poem, The Oxen, was intriguing to me in a non-Hallmark-card kind of way.  So, I did a little light research and found out a few things.  And as I thought about the poem, and what the literary experts tell me about it, and reflect on what I'm feeling this time of year, some things have become a little clearer, and I thought I'd share them. 

This poem, according to some background I read, appeared in The Times of London on December 24th, 1915: a time, which, in some ways was a time similar to our own.  That Christmas, England was involved in the second year of a brutal, grinding war that was supposed to have been finished before Christmas the previous year.  The Industrial Revolution was transforming society.  The prevalence of rationalism, science and consumerism had begun its march toward overtaking faith and tradition.  I'll bet you can hear the echoes of that time here in 2006—science, rationalism, consumerism, a brutal, grinding war what was supposed to be over by now...

Hardy is writing wistfully about a time when he would have believed his elders when they told him about the magic that happens on Christmas eve—the English traditional myth that the animals whose ancestors witnessed Christ's birth would kneel at midnight on Christmas eve.  He's looking backward and longing for the good old days.  According to the author of the critical essay that I read, “the dominant feeling of “The Oxen” is one of wistful regret or poignant loss at the passing of a secure world buttressed by the allied senses of legend, tradition, faith in a presiding deity, and community.” 1

I must confess that even as I am in those “magical” years for my own kids—with their excitement over Christmas, particularly with what Santa Claus might be bringing them, I am finding the Christmas season to be a little “flat” and un-magical this year.  I have NOTHING to complain about:  I have a terrific, healthy family, a roof over my head, all my needs are met, and yet I keep wondering when I'm going to find that “zing”, that sparkling, pine-scented moment when my heart sings because it's Christmas. 

A couple of years ago, there was a commercial for... I'm not sure what, that began with a woman's voice, talking about her fond memories of all the wonderful things her own mother did that made Christmas magical... and then there was the pitch for whatever the product was—cake mixes? Bathroom cleaner?  I don't know... but the spot ended with “and this year, I get to be the mom”, somehow emphasizing that the joy of Christmas would come in being the one to provide the magic.  And while that's true, in a way... it's not the whole truth.  The truth is, once we adults become responsible for “the magic” of Christmas, it can sometimes be a little harder to find the “magic” in our own lives.  I mean, what if that “build your own solar-powered robot” kit that's on back-order right now doesn't arrive by Christmas morning, and what if I can't find time to put together the Gingerbread house whose pieces are in a box on the dining room table.  And what if my kids stage a meltdown on Christmas eve and refuse to go to bed while my husband is in charge and I'm here, singing the 10 o'clock Christmas eve service?   

AND here's where I hope to turn from whining to  rejoicing.  Paul, in 1Corinthians 13:11-13 reminds us that we, as Christians, have something more important than “the magic” to look forward to.  “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.  Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 

So then, it seems I have a choice this Christmas season.  I can get caught up in the wistfulness, the longing for the “perfect” Christmas of long ago, I can wish that I saw the oxen kneeling.   I can sigh over the way the world has changed since the “old days”.  I can worry  about being the one to produce the magic for my family, OR, I can turn my mind to the real miracle of Christmas, Christ's incarnation and his promised return.   This might be the year when I, “put childish ways behind me” and look forward to a sparkling moment when I “shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (v.12).   Can there really be anything more heart-satisfying than to know God fully and be fully known?  So, for now, if there's anyone else out there like me, feeling a little tired of  trying to capture the “magic” of Christmas, perhaps this is the year when we can claim a kind of grown-up consolation in the words of a familiar scripture.  (I'll read it again, slowly, so you can let it sink in, maybe in a new way)

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  This Christmas, I pray that you will sense, above all else, God's great love, shown in his willingness to come and live among us and that THAT  miracle will be what sustains you through this season when we work so hard to find that magic that Thomas Hardy looked for, “in the lonely barton by yonder coomb our childhood used to know”.   

1.Allingham, Philip V., “Image, Allusion, Voice, Dialect, and Irony in Thomas Hardy's 'The Oxen' and the Poem's Original Publication Context”, www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/poems/pva141.html


No comments:

Post a Comment