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Between insufficiency and plenitude

by
17 December 2021

Catherine Pickstock looks east with Eleanor Farjeon

Alamy

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

 

THE earth is in trouble. We are in trouble. We sense that we may have just one last chance to save the only reality that we know. Where should we look for succour? Where can we turn for help?

In her Advent poem, written in 1928, Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) tells us that there is only one place to look when we are in cosmic peril, and that is to the dawn: “People, look east”. The answer, for this poet of beginnings — who wrote the hymn “Morning has broken Like the first morning” (see page 26) — is to return to the beginning.

In the same idiom, she notes that children live in a more primary temporality of returning seasons, not of consecutive events; and declares that no love story repeats any other one, but is always a new reality. She understood herself to be an “instance”, and thought of the world as being composed of arising new “instants”, more fundamental than any general rule.

 

FOR Farjeon, it would seem that our problems arise at midday, with the forgetting that we still live authentically with the sun’s ever new arising. Hers is a carolling call to return to innocence, to Eden, to our lost bond with the earth, and kinship with all creatures.

The message of Advent, it would seem, is to remember that nothing ultimately depends on our own labours. For now, it is night; it is winter; just at present — for us, in our present day — it appears to be “the great winter” or Fimbulwinter of Norse mythology, as a prelude to the outbreak of war, or planetary conflagration.

But, for Farjeon, we are approaching the turn of the year, and of the Great Year: at the lowest ebb of light — “the year’s midnight”, as John Donne referred to St Lucy’s Day eve — when the Sun relents and resumes its gradual ascent. In the dark hour of history, a Jewish woman gave birth to the Messiah. We are promised that he will return, and this time in triumph and glory.

All that we need to do is to prepare the way, eagerly decorating our houses with baubles of nature, just as the furrows should be glad, and nature herself should not despair. The earth bears nothing; the birds have “ceased to build”; the stars are in hiding. But all things must hold themselves in patience: a stranger will arrive; an unsuspected extra seed has been planted; a surprise fledgling will be born in the empty nest; a new star will shine in the night, like a candle’s brim in a bowl.

All these arrivals are one: the perennial arrival of love, which is rose, and flight, and light. His birth is the secret rule that is also an exceptional instance: the groundless emergence of the surprising moment, and of all the instances that are the same and yet, perforce, unique.

 

IT IS this love, this helpless infant, who is our true Lord, as the angels announce in their restoration of language. Their musical words, which “set every peak and valley humming”, are always fresh and original: they are words of mirth and joy, because they concern the triumph with which everything begins and re-begins. The opening moment is also a final “crowning” — and we need to know this from the beginning.

But it is a baby we are talking about, and so it is a frail triumph. A baby is a joy, but is also in peril, as this baby was immediately in peril.

If we attend to the stanzas of the poem, we find that cradled within each of them is a note of urgency and a hint of impending danger. We are to make our houses fair “as we are able”; the earth must “give up its strength”; the birds must “guard the nest”; and the stars must “keep the watch”.

Only the angels may be confident, but they announce what is yet to appear, not what is already manifest. The hour of the Nativity — when (according to the Protoevangelium of James) birds will fall silent for an instant, the stars stand still in their courses, and streams for a moment cease to flow — has not yet come.

 

IN THE 1962 musical setting of Farjeon’s poem by the eccentric 20th-century composer of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, Peter Tranchell (arranged in 2013 by Peter Marchbank, and recorded for Hyperion in 2016 with such momentousness by the St John’s College Chapel Choir), this darkness is not only brought to the fore, but the nesting is reversed, disrupted by a flurry of syncopations and shifting time signatures. Tranchell’s arrangement sounds a rhythmically crusading note of preparation and macabre foreboding, with a sense of a joyous dance folded within an overall mood of an alert night-watch, and danger.

Reading the poem, one might be lulled into thinking that all we have to do is expect — or even just go back to sleep and confidently attend the sun’s rising.

But, listening to Tranchell’s setting, we are reminded that the poem begins with a rousing and urgent imperative. There is something that we must do and, if the furrows and birds and stars must actively prepare the way of love, that suggests that our vigilance is not merely passive or attendant. We are not only to look east, but also to prepare our houses to receive the ultimate guest; and this is not just a matter of idle adornment, but the realisation of truth.

Tranchell’s setting brings out the unstated: if we and the other natural elements do not do these things, there may not be a final dawn. The ground and the night and sky and the intellective cosmos are not passive receptacles awaiting an extrinsic arrival. Rather, we have a vital labour to perform.

Farjeon once suggested that a certain “darkness” veils the face of all women, which only love can lift away. Yet, if we follow the implications of her imagery, this was not intended by her as a denial of agency, but as active preparation and cooperation. Undoubtedly, as an Anglican who eventually became a Roman Catholic, her thinking here was Mariological. Love cannot arrive unless it is drawn and actively received by love. The incarnation could not have taken place without the assent of Mary to the angel Gabriel.

It follows that, if love is to arrive again and the cosmos to be restored, the Marian assent of earth and furrow and humanity must be repeated. Restoration is all the work of God, and yet spiritual evil has put the dawn in jeopardy — even for God, who cannot abandon his own work without abandoning himself.

This is the core of the poem’s darkness: if we have refused the light then, even though the light will infallibly return, this certain restoration incomprehensibly depends upon our welcome, toil, and vigilance. This work of love is, confoundingly, beyond both active and passive, in the middle voice.

 

THEREFORE, it is not misguided of us, this year as every year, both to await Christmas in eager anticipation and yet feverishly and often anxiously to prepare for it. Will everything go right this time? Will it land to its best advantage? Will everything go right in the Great Year, even though our history seems to be poised on the brink of its lowest edge, its desolation?

In the face of these questions, we must retain faith and hope, in confidence that the perennial love will eventually show up in a spectacularly new guise: a new and differently perfect instance. God will still send his angelic messengers to tell us how to retrieve the lost pearl of finite beauty which God himself requires, because it is none other than his glory.

Along with the stars and the birds and the flowers, we will put on the many-coloured raiment of the glorified, spiritual body, anticipated in our decorating of trees, our making fair, and all our adornings. The journey of Joseph, of the infant Jesus, and of every true sage to Egypt — to retrieve true wisdom from a merely human grasp — will be universally repeated.

But faith, if it is true faith, cannot be divorced from works, as the apostles Paul and James both taught. Adam and Eve began in innocent labour and trust in love. Their betrayal of love for power led us into endless subtle complications that now spell ruination.

With discernment and redeemed cunning, we must now recover that simplicity, and return to the sense that the first task of love for embodied creatures is faithful husbandry, local solidarity with other human beings, and kinship with the whole of nature, as well as with the manifold of stars and planets.

We cannot uncouple our faith that Christ will one day return to the earth from the need to sustain an earth that it is possible for him to return to. Nor can we evade the possibility that this will involve a terrible apocalyptic struggle, between those prepared to undertake this work and those who continue to resist it in the name of power and money and cruelty rather than love.

 

FARJEON — a prominent Socialist poet of the 1930s and an enthusiastic gardener, lover of the Sussex and Normandy countryside, and chronicler for children of rurally wandering minstrels — would surely have agreed.

She was by no means only a poet of the morning, and of the sufficiency of the new instant. She was also a poet of mourning, as in her lament for the death in the First World War of her close friend Edward Thomas; she was a poet of persisting insufficiency, despite expectation of plenitude. In lines considering a seemingly perfect kiss between reconciling lovers, she declares that “love has no uttermost, as the stars have no number and the sea no rest.”

Re-read in this light, her Advent song undergoes another reversal. Its point is not just a waiting that will soon be over in an ultimate celebration, tricked out in tinsel; nor the wait for the single remaining and surprising thing that will compensate us for the loss of everything else, and prove all-fulfilling.

Rather, it is that in finite time we must continue to wait, and that there is no last or semelfactive — sudden, complete, and unrepeated — consummation. Even the incarnation — the final arrival of the one God as a baby — is sign and promise of a future and final apocalyptic arrival, when the one God will prove to be, as for St Paul, “all in all”; and every human being and every creature will be reborn in the image of Christ as part of his cosmic body.

 

THOUGH we should look east, we should also look west to the final evening. We should await not just the sun’s rising, but also the manifestation of the stars that are the halo of our Lady’s head, as for Revelation; and, likewise, the infinite avian company of every flying creature — both birds and angels — skimming the surface of the upper sea that is, for the scriptures, the source of refreshing rain.

For now, we must engage in a synergic labour with the Holy Spirit to bring Christ to birth on earth once more. We must both work in hope and hope in work, and in struggle, and spiritual warfare.

But this synergy will be perfected: God will also wait, and we — all of us, all the flowers and furrows and birds, stars and angels — will also arrive to re-enter the heavenly Jerusalem. Only then will the veil of darkness be removed, in such a way that the Christmas feasting can commence for ever.


Catherine Pickstock is Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, and a co-founder of Radical Orthodoxy.

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