Advent, like Lent, is a season of preparation. As we approach Christmas and holiday busyness threatens to overwhelm, there remains that quiet, spiritual imperative: take time to absorb again the deeper message of Christmas. For most of us, that means devotional reading, or perhaps listening to the wonderful choral works that celebrate Jesus’ birth. Sadly, poetry is often ignored as a source of inner refreshment. Yet serious spiritual poetry has been written in every century, from the Psalms and Early Christian hymns to medieval canticles and 19th century carols.
In this tradition, Georg Johannes Gick wrote a cycle of Christmas poems, The Shepherd’s Pipe. Published as Die Hirtenflöte in Germany in 1935, a copy found its way already that same year to the Bruderhof, at that time a small community existing near Fulda, under the threat of Nazi persecution. The poems, generally consisting of three or four rhymed verses, are well worth reading in their original German, but there is also a remarkable lyric translation done 60 years ago by Jere Brunner, and it is in this form that I have come to know and love The Shepherd’s Pipe.
For me personally, Gick’s poems are a continuing source of Advent renewal because of their simple beauty, depth of expression, and mystical references to the Gospel. Though little is known about Gick, we can consider him a modern mystic. Throughout the poem cycle there are Biblical references, sometimes direct, mostly oblique, others perhaps merely contextual. Some are so veiled they may go unnoticed, even by those familiar with the poems, but it is these very references that imbue the poetry with its unique character.
The miracle-poem, The Ox and the Ass, is a succinct nine-line gem, yet it is a profound illustration of the Gospel text that with God all things are possible. The Old Shepherd is based on the picture in John 10 of the Good Shepherd and the flock; The Moon refers to that same image. The Stars quotes Jesus’ words that the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. In The Little Path, we find that the stones themselves would thrill with joy, would cry out, surely referencing Jesus’ words as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In a prophetic way, The Wisp of Straw brings the Last Supper and Crucifixion into the Nativity story. The Candle has wonderfully captured the paradox of discipleship and service, echoing 1st Corinthians 13: “…with the love I bring, only when I am no more, will I be everything.” And then there is The Bell, which speaks in a Revelations-sense of the Spirit’s children keeping the Feast.
In the twenty-three poems that make up The Shepherd’s Pipe, several themes are evident. The Stable, The Roof Above the Manger, The Bed of Hay, all speak of the poverty surrounding Christ’s birth and the unworthiness of earth to receive this pure blessing from heaven. Repeated imagery of people streaming to see the Child in the manger is beautifully incorporated into The Poet, The Shepherd’s Song, The Path, and The Candle. Another recurring theme is the deep, quiet joy of the Incarnation, that God came to earth in human form, expressed in The Man, The Linden Tree, and finally, The Miracle.
It is these elements, manifested in the simplest of poetic lines, that have made The Shepherd’s Pipe resonate in my heart every Advent. And yet poetry, for all its contemplative beauty, lacks a communal dimension. So it is all the more appropriate that Gick’s words have been set to music as a cantata for children’s voices and string quartet. The composer, Marlys Swinger, an accomplished pianist and choral composer now in her eighties, found a remarkable musical expression for each of the voices in The Shepherd’s Pipe: there is the dark, quiet Prelude, the lighter tunes of The Rosebush and The Little Path, the soaring melody of The Linden Tree in its prayerful anticipation, the solemn chords of The Wisemen, and the canon-voices of The Bell. But the most striking musical inspiration is in The Ox and the Ass: the plodding bass line, the sturdy speech of the blind ass and the deaf ox, the interlude played crescendo and accelerando as sight and hearing are miraculously restored by the Christ Child, and then the proclamation that “with God all things can be!”
Let me draw the reader’s attention to a few more poignant lines: The Spider, having wrapped many a little body in its silken shroud, asks that when his time comes, the Christ Child might come and do that service for him. Christmas Every Day, originally the final poem in the set, recounts, “I saw the star that fell that night down from the heaven clear; I know I heard the angels tread who brought the Baby here”, followed by the repentant response, “I want to open wide my heart and sweep it clean and clear…” And in The Miracle: “Mary came to me apart and laid the Holy Child here inside my heart. My heart was made the manger and my body was the stall.” But it doesn’t end there, for the poem — and the entire cycle — concludes with “And now no man is stranger, my life goes out to all!”
That’s what Christmas is all about: that our lives, redeemed by the coming of the Christ Child, go out to those around us. The poems in The Shepherd’s Pipe can be read again and again. Better yet, listen to (or sing!) the songs. Your Advent experience will be all the richer.
Ed. Note: Georg Johannes Gick was born in 1910 in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, and grew up in Amberg. In 1937 he moved to Munich, where he taught elementary school and served as a school principal from 1956 to 1972.