Notes on Advent + Christmas with Malcolm Guite

by | Jan 8, 2021 | Non-Fiction Reads, Reading Life | 0 comments

Happy 2021, all!

Easing into this new year after the mess that was 2020 seems precarious. It’s natural to feel hopeful. The turning over of the calendar, the beginning of a new journey around the sun brings with it hope and dreams and wishes and aspirations. After this past year, we’re all hoping and dreaming and wishing for something new, better. Of course, the overriding problems with 2020 are still present and it’s best that we don’t neglect that in our hopes for brighter days. And yet, there are glimmers. Vaccines. Better treatments. Knowledge. Cautiously optimistic might be the best way forward.

This will post shortly after the Feast of Epiphany, the official end to the Christmas season. This year, I chose to read Waiting on the Word by Malcolm Guite over the course of Advent and Christmas. Guite is an Anglican priest, as well as a poet and singer-songwriter, who writes on poetry and its relation to faith, as well as writing his own. I’ve kept up with his work through his blog/email subscription for some time, but this was the first of his published works that I purchased. I must say I’m not often good at untangling the meaning of poetry myself, but under Guite’s guidance each day, I walked away from my poem-a-day practice feeling hopeful and inspired. Today, I wanted to share with you a few of the ideas that have stuck with me most and that I hope to carry with me into 2021.

O Sapientia by Malcolm Guite

Mid-way through Advent, Guite takes us through the O Antiphons, seven prayers that call on Christ using titles found in the Old Testament, namely Isaiah. The first of those, sapientia, is better known to us as wisdom. Wisdom in the OT is typically personified as feminine, perhaps an odd choice for a Christian prayer to Christ. However, Guite’s guidance through this prayer was invaluable in transforming my thoughts.

First, he notes that Wisdom as addressed in this antiphon does not refer to intelligence or knowledge in an individual capacity; rather, it refers to “a primal, almost pre-existent, quality of order and beauty out of which all things spring.” This realization should make us think both of creation itself, as described in Genesis, and Christ, as described in John 1.

Next, Guite discusses the search for God. One could argue that we’re all searching for something: some scrap of meaning or truth. Guite notes that we “cannot directly point to God because [wisdom], this underlying coherence and beauty, is not to be found anywhere as an item in the cosmos; it is not a single being, but the ground of being itself – not a single beauty but the source of all beauty.” Rather than this dissuade us from God, however, we should be able to notice that he is both “hidden” in the beauty of creation and “gloriously apparent” in it.

Lastly, Guite shares how our consideration of God as Wisdom, as an underlying, foundational Truth both hidden and shining throughout the cosmos, could guide both our faith sharing and our time of Advent. As noted above, we are all searching for something, without necessarily knowing what. Guite shares how this search for Wisdom, even before thinking it related to God or Jesus, can guide us to Him. He also shares his conviction that we should all, from time to time, take on the mind of those who don’t yet know the name of Jesus and search for his Wisdom and his Truth.

O Radix by Malcolm Guite

Another of the O Antiphons, this poem invites us to look at Christ as the Root. In a time where more and more people seem to be seeking our holistic wellness, I think this vision of Christ as the Root is even more compelling and invaluable. The original prayer refers to the Tree of Jesse and the lineage of Christ, from Jesse through David. However, Guite again guides us deeper.

First, Guite shares a foundational belief that I find to be of the utmost importance but also find to be lacking, especially in our Western traditions. That is the belief that “God in Christ is… the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers.” It hearkens back to God as this underlying Wisdom of the cosmos. Not only does God form the foundation of Wisdom, but also goodness. He is the Root and the Vine and those rooted in him cannot bear bad fruit. I find that we are apt to forget this or to try to box it in to a specific set of rules, names, or traditions.

Next, Guite discusses ethics and the importance of recognizing that there are indeed behaviors that are better and more virtuous than others. The original meaning of virtue was “intrinsic strength or power.” This was often used with relation to herbs with certain “healing virtues.” Drawing in on these connections to earth and gardening, our virtue is defined by our roots.

Lastly, Guite plays with the idea that the root word virtue has been formed into our modern word virtual, with its open-season attitude towards vices over virtues. He shares a brief line by Phillip Larkin, written about post-war England:

Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives. 

Today, Guite shares that this something is most frequently found in our online, virtual activities. “There is a link between our rootlessness and our uncentred edginess.” Without firm Roots, we will fail.

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton

The shepherds on the lawn, 
Or e'er the point of dawn, 
Sat simply chatting in a rustick row; 
Full little thought they then, 
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below. 

Though one of the longer poems shared in this work, there is but one idea that has really stuck with me from this poem from Milton. In Greek mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, of nature. In Milton’s verse, written above, the shepherds abiding their flocks did not let loose with praise to the God of Abraham; rather they referred to this incarnation of Christ as Pan kindly coming to live with them on earth. What can Milton mean and how is this related to Christ and Emmanuel? As Guite puts it, “he introduces a…subtle and profound idea, that in some sense Christ fulfills, clarifies, and brings to perfection whatever was good or true in the pagan religion”

Ideas from previous poems noted above begin to take greater shape within this idea. God as underlying Wisdom and Truth. God as the Root of all goodness. What we search for, people have always been searching for. At times, it led to pagan religions and mythologies, devised by people who sought the Truth about the world about them, but were unable to come full circle to God. Christ, Milton suggests, is the fulfillment of those searches, those misapplications. Rather than discarding these ancient religions, mythologies, and traditions as wholly, utter nonsense, Milton invites us to recognize the glimmers of Truth and Goodness existent there, that those before us sought to find and apply rightly. There might have been missteps and wrong conclusions along the way, but where we find Truth and Goodness we can also find glimmers of Christ.

In Memoriam CVI by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson begins each stanza of this poem with “Ring out” and “Ring in.” As a new year begins, with each pealing of the church bell, Tennyson invites us to ring out the bad, and ring in the good. It’s a poem of unabashed hope for the year (and years) to come.

Guite notes that this poem was written during the Victorian era, when there was great hope for progress and the betterment of lives. Industrialization, followed by Word Wars I and II, would seem to dash Tennyson’s hopes. However, Guite shares that they should not be met with “scorn or sceptisicism” however much we might want to despair. Indeed, drawing back to God as the Root, Guite shares that “the great and life-transforming hope of this passage is not rooted in the immediate success of one scheme of amelioration or another, but in the only place where hope can be rooted: in Christ himself, and his long Advent.” To despair, in fact, Guite views as “the easier and certainly the lazier option.”

Shouldn’t this spur us on to hope? Yes, in the short term, immediate view, things can seem too dreary to hope for better. But let’s not be lazy! Rather, let us keep ourselves rooted to the goodness of Christ, basking in his Wisdom, and ring out the bad and ring in the new, each as individuals, until it is a light unto the world. A true light, one that cannot be hidden or dampened no matter what the circumstances of the world may be.

The Bird in the Tree by Ruth Pitter

In this poem by Ruth Pitter, we quietly observe a bird in a tree. Pitter, open to the world around her and what it could reveal, shares those revelations through her words. What I took away from this poem, however, was simply the act of noticing. She didn’t “simply…communicate a transfigured vision, and unveil a little of heaven in the ordinary; she believed there was no ordinary.” To Pitter, the inability to find the sacred in the secular was merely “a failure of attention, a lazy habit of mind.” And so, as she observes a bird sitting in a tree, she is not seeing only a bird and only a tree. She is glimpsing heaven. Oh, that we could each live like that!