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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 February 2024

At Candlemas, Malcolm Guite, like T. S. Eliot, is drawn to the mystery of the infant Christ

WE COME again to Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, as it is rather less pithily called these days. However we name it, it is one of my favourites among the feast days in the church calendar.

From one point of view, it brings to a satisfactory conclusion the long arc of our Christmas festivities — the last of the days when we are invited to contemplate Christ as an infant, the Ancient of Days as a baby. The word “infant” comes from the Latin infans, meaning without speech, a fact that led Lancelot Andrewes to point out the paradox and exclaim, in a sermon of 1611: “What —Verbum Infans — the Word an infant, and not able to speak a word!”

This marvelling at the humility of God, the self-emptying of the Word, the unknowing of the omniscient, was something that moved and attracted T. S. Eliot when he read Andrewes’s sermons. It was part of what brought him to faith. Indeed, Eliot alludes to that sermon in “Ash Wednesday”, the poem through whose publication, 94 years ago, many readers discovered for the first time that the author of The Waste Land was now a Christian. So Eliot writes:

The Word without a word, The Word within

The world and for the world;
And the light shone in the darkness. . .

It’s a poem for Ash Wednesday, but this section could easily stand for Candlemas, when we kindle lights in the dark time of the year to remember that a light still shines that no darkness can overcome.

In my own small way, I, too, have been drawn to this mystery of the Word himself wordless, the Logos, the source of all meaning, humbling himself to learn from his mother, as we all did, how sounds can magically, miraculously, acquire meaning, and become not just sounds, but words. I reflected on it in the opening of my poem about “The Naming of Jesus”:

I name you now, from whom all names derive,
Who uttered forth the name of everything,
And in that naming made the world alive,
Sprung from the breath and essence of your being.
The very Word that gave us words to speak,
You drank in language with your mother’s milk
And learned through touch before you learned to talk.
You wove our week-day world, and still one week
Within that world, you took your saving name. . .

But, if Candlemas brings the arc of Christmas to a close, its setting, a presentation in the temple, looks towards the day when Christ comes to the temple again, and this time with the knotted cords to cleanse and purge it, to cast down the tables of exchange and all the other false barriers that we place between ourselves and our living God.

And even that cleansing, which we will remember at the start of Holy Week, is only a prelude to the removal of the final barrier, when, nailed to the cross, Jesus breathes his last, and the veil in the temple, the veil that excludes all but the high priest from the holy of holies, is torn in two from top to bottom.

So, his coming as an infant, that wordless coming of the Word at Candlemas, is the start of a sequence, a movement, a chain of events that will carry us through Lent to Passiontide, and whose climax we will celebrate at Easter.

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