Poetic Imagination and the Truth of God

Modern culture trivializes Christmas with gooey sentimentality. The Heliand (or Saxon Gospel) on the other hand did not hesitate to depict the infant Jesus as the boy born to be King and the greatest hero of all time.

WHAT FOLLOWS IS A LITTLE ESSAY I wrote for our parish newsletter this past Christmas. I offer it here because it discusses The Heliand, which appeals to me on a variety of levels and raises (in my mind, at least) the question of the poetic imagination, which I would like to deal with explicitly in some future post.

Christ in the Crib: God-Made-Man

I FIND THE “CHRISTMAS SEASON ” (that time of year that used to be called Advent) irritating, and do my best to ignore it. Not because of the wretched Christmas music blared in every public venue from Macy’s to Jiffy Lube, nor the crass commercialization that spawns tacky sermons such as “What Would Jesus Buy?” or the ads that show tinsel Christmas trees adorned small electronic gadgets as ornaments. Those irritations are products of a crass and cynical world that has little love for God, and as such are generally easy for me to ignore (as I have learned to ignore many aspects of our hyper-commercialized modern world). They have little to do with the great feast celebrated by Christians. No, what I object to most is something that most Christians unthinkingly embrace: the cuddlification of Almighty God.

In the weeks leading up to the Church’s celebration of the Nativity of the Lord, Christian gift shops, greeting cards, and homes abound with saccharine images of Christ as a sweet little baby, designed to make you go all gooey inside, to want to pick Him up, cuddle Him, chuck Him under the chin, and murmur, “Who’s a sweet little babykins, then?” Now, I find babies just as endearing as the next person, but I don’t think the Almighty became Man so that we would coo over how cute He was.

Trivializing an important dogma: God became like us to save us, not to entertain us.

Before you write me off as a terrible Grinch, let me explain: what I object to is the trivialization of the Incarnation that results from an overly-sentimental attachment to the infant Jesus. Make no mistake, sentimentality can be deadly. Consider, for instance, the way our modern culture regards babies: when they are welcome, we think of them as adorable, but when we find them inconvenient– we don’t feel so gooey about them–when we find them inconvenient, troublesome, too time-consuming or costly — we kill them before they have a chance to live. Our culture has, in fact, trivialized infants by making them all about the way we feel about them, robbing baby humans of their inherent worth, their human dignity, so that we feel free to abort them, neglect them, abuse them. Similarly, when our Christmas preparations focus too much on the cute little baby in the manger (rather than His true identity), we run the risk of trivializing the Nativity of God-Made-Man, the Almighty who did not hesitate to stoop to our lowly estate in order to get our attention.

We see evidence of this trivialization in the proliferation of Nativity sets in which the figures are all cats or cupcakes or VeggieTale characters or other “collectible” representations of what was, in fact, one of the two most astonishing and world-shaking events in the history of mankind. We need to remember that God did not become an baby so that we would find Him cuddly; he became a man so that he could die for our sake. At the heart of the Nativity is the paradox of the Incarnation: that He who is Mighty deliberately became weak so that he could share our troubles, our sorrow, our death. For me, the power and wonder of Christmas has always been found in this paradoxical truth, that the Infinite became Finite, the Immortal and Eternal, for a time, made Himself small and vulnerable. This is a truth that has always been difficult to accept or understand, but some ages have dealt with it better than our own. Today we tend to avoid discomfort of any kind (witness the proliferation of pills and potions widely available to dispel all pains mental and physical), so we prefer the cute, cuddly baby God of Christmas to the Mighty Judge who, as Advent constantly reminds us, is coming soon (forgetting that the two are the same).

The Heliand, a Saxon Gospel

IN THE RAW MIDDLE AGES, however, people had not yet trivialized God; perhaps for this reason my favorite Christmas images and carols come from that time. Lately, I’ve been thinking particularly of a poem of the early Middle Ages, The Heliand (or Savior), also called The Saxon Gospel, a ninth-century retelling of the synoptic Gospels as an epic poem of God the Warrior-King. This poem was written for Saxons who had been forcibly converted by Charlemagne but who found it difficult to embrace a god whom they found weak. The Saxons were a Germanic warrior race, who fiercely resisted both conquest by Charlemagne or forced conversion to Christianity. The monk who wrote The Heliand sought to show that Christianity was not incompatible with Saxon culture and values, and apparently he was successful in convincing them that the God of Christianity, despite His becoming a man, was not a puling weakling but a mighty ruler, a crafty king who knew how to outsmart and conquer his wily foe, Satan.

Anglo-Saxon culture tended to portray Christ as a heroic and triumphant figure.

THE HELIAND OPENS WITH A SONG OF CREATION that presents the Creator as a master spell-maker, the great sorcerer who merely by speaking the words of creation brings all things into being and banishes primordial darkness. (This same idea is echoed in a modern hymn that begins: “Thou Whose almighty Word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight.” All of Creation, time, and even Fate itself work together to do God’s will, until the moment is ripe for His ultimate master plan to unfold, when He will, for a time, appear weak, but only so that he can fool his foe and win the ultimate victory.

The Heliand’s author made certain changes in emphasis in order to capture the imaginations (and admiration) of Saxon warriors. For instance, in this telling, Christ is depicted as being born into the household of the scion of a line of great kings, and the herald angels who announce the new King’s arrival appear not to lowly shepherds but to the groomsmen guarding noble Joseph’s horses. The Infant, at His birth, is clothed not in swaddling bands, like any village brat, but in jeweled clothes befitting a king.

Not only is Jesus’ regal lineage emphasized, but he also is shown behaving in a way that Saxon warriors would recognize as kingly. For instance, later in his life, as any great Saxon king would have done, Jesus attracts a band of noblemen who become his comitatus, the thanes of the king who serve him by choice, for honor rather than under obligation. In the great day of battle, when Christ takes on the greatest foe, Death itself, even Peter, the noblest and bravest of Jesus’ thanes, quails before the power of the foe and deserts his King, much as Beowulf’s thanes deserted him when he faced a fire-breathing dragon. Unlike Beowulf, however, the Lord Jesus, rather than acting to magnify His own glory, carefully keeps His true identity veiled, appearing weak, because He knows that otherwise the Jews and the Romans would never dare to assault so great a warrior-king. In this way, Jesus deceives His enemy, allowing Himself to be taken prisoner and bound to a rood. But, just as the Foe believes he has conquered Him, He escapes His bonds, breaking the chains of Death and leaping up victorious. Thus, as the medieval Christmas carol, “Personent Hodie,” acclaims, perdidit spolia princeps infernorum— the spoiler is despoiled, the prince of Hell forfeits his victory.

Antony Esolen, in a recent essay on TheCatholicThing.com, says that “[t]he soul of poetry is not so much to make strange things familiar, but to make familiar things strange, so that we can really begin to see them.” Perhaps this is why I find poems like The Heliand such a bracing corrective to the modern, sentimentalized version of Christmas. By making God just another cute and cuddly baby, we run the risk of forgetting that he is the Man Who was born to die, the almighty Creator of all that is, Whose power and craft alone can save us from the wiles of the devil and inexorable death. That is the God we worship when we kneel before the Christmas crib. Not a cat, not a cartoon character, but God become Man for our sake.

Postscript: Here’s a choral rendition of the wonderful Christmas carol referred to above. This modern boys’ choir does a good job of conveying the exuberance of this medieval celebration of God become Man:

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