This article was originally published on December 21, 2020.
In all the cosmos, there is nothing so important as Christmas. Among the wheeling galaxies, immense clouds of gasses, and black holes you will find no celestial body to rival the Star of Bethlehem. Christmas is the window that lets in the light of the universe, the means by which we see all that is. Advent allows us to throw open the sash and let that light in. It is the point of entry for the divine interruption that Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh called “the flash.”
A farmer and a drinker with a bit of an irascible temper, Patrick Kavanagh was born in rural Ulster in 1904 and died in Dublin in 1967. As a young man, he fled the countryside for the city, anxious to taste all the world had to offer beyond potato pits and sheaves of hay. But this adventure was accompanied by a great sense of loss. In going out and seeking to fill his ego with the pleasures of the city and the acclaim of the world, he had lost most of all the ability to lose himself, to forget himself among murmuring cows, shushing wildflowers, and the swinging of the garden gate.
The first of his great Christmas poems, “Advent,” is about how to regain the freshness of vision that accompanies childhood, how to see the world again as we ought.
We have tasted and tested too much, lover
Through a chink too wide comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyze God’s breath in common statement
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.
The idea of “tasting and testing” gives us the image of the world as a buffet, where we may come to sample many pleasures. But anyone who has been to an all-you-can-eat restaurant knows that, after a while even our favorite foods grow dull, our stomach gets full, and we grow tired of the whole thing. If, on the other hand, we have ever spoken to someone accustomed to fasting, we will know the immense pleasure that such a person can find in a simple apple or a pear.
When we have tasted and tested too much, it is time for us to narrow the chink through which we let the world in. A smaller aperture renews our focus; it allows us to turn our attention from what things can do for us to what they are in themselves. Fasting is a way of renewing our appreciation for the world in this way.
The relentless tasting and testing turn out to be a useless knowledge, a knowledge that does not satisfy. Better to return it, to trade it in for the luxurious childishness that sees things for what they really are. In childhood, a simple hill behind the house is enough to shock the spirit with awe. A chatty old man is like an oracle. The memory of this newness brings the speaker and his lover, as adults, back to the simple things. Going out to the yard gate where they have been countless times before, they will be able to see in the whins (gorse bushes) and cart tracks and stables much more than bushes and puddles and horses; they will see them as if they were just created, as if this were the first day and time had just begun, as if there were no time at all, and as if all things came together into one totally fresh moment.
Christmas is the refreshing of the world, an interruption of aging, cynicism, and habit that shakes off the dust and cobwebs of our many years and presents the world to us newborn, in the swaddling clothes of infancy. After Christmas, we will not need to search for novelty: it is literally the celebration of the re-creation of the world. When the infant Christ is born into the world, the world is born again in the infant Christ. This is because when God became man, he joined himself fully to our world, filling every ordinary thing with divinity and making each thing new.
It is here, in seeing the world as gift and responding in love, that true wealth comes. The emptiness felt at the beginning of the poem by the speaker and his lover is turned to fullness. And this richness, whereby a simple hedge can break a heart with its strange beauty, whereby an ordinary conversation can sound like the breathing of God, doesn’t need to be analyzed, only accepted with thanks.
In all his work, Kavanagh is trying to capture “the flash,” that sudden, breathtaking glimpse of the divine that can surprise us in the most ordinary things. We might see it in the smile of a loved one, in the play of light on a paving stone, or in the chatter of people in a coffee shop. In “Advent,” it is the “January flower” that brings us an image of the Christ child who, by coming into our world, opens all things to that flash – to the brilliance that shone over Bethlehem and still floods the world with light today.
For Christmas means that God has come to our earth, to every snorting calf and spinning star, and invested each with his eternal freshness. There is nothing human, whether milk, or blood, or wine, G. K. Chesterton said, that Christ did not make divine by joining us in our humanity. This shocking notion cannot be stated enough, and in the 2000 years of Christmases, has never grown tired: God himself is a human being. Whatever is part of human life and human experience, except for doing evil, lives in the Godhead. He has identified himself with you and me, and we are thereby lifted up into the timeless feast of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The final word about the world is not decay and suffering and boredom, then, but the conviviality whereby all things come from and return to Love. This Christmas truth, if we can believe it, allows us to give our hearts to the world without fear of disappointment or of being fooled; it grounds our enjoyment and legitimate interest in all other things.
This world is a Christmas world. Advent is a time to blink the gunk out of our eyes that keeps us from seeing it. The light of Christmas illumines the universe, and by it, we understand life to be worth its while. So blink, fast, and prepare in hope for that day when we may be granted a vision of things made new. Is this all a wild, far-fetched hope? Perhaps, but in Kavanagh’s reckoning, it is the best hope we’ve got.
“Advent” by Patrick Kavanagh, from A Soul for Sale (Macmillan, 1947).