By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published January 1, 2016
Our Nicholas, who just turned 5, is forever trying to figure out how things work.
This means that he is also forever breaking things.
Over the course of this Advent season, he has managed to destroy 17 lights, three preschool Christmas art projects and at least one variation of an Advent calendar.
He and his brother also ate an entire Advent calendar. Then they ate another one.
When we brought down the ornaments for our tree, the house was filled with the merry sounds of things cracking, tinkling and collapsing. Welcome to our home, we say to visitors. Mind the shards!
I am sorry to say that Nicholas also broke the baby Jesus. We had taken a collection of Nativity bambini to Mass on December 13 for a blessing. I noticed that no other families with young children had brought a baby Jesus. I found this odd. I later saw the wisdom of their reluctance to participate.
Following the blessing of the few infant Jesus figurines in attendance, Nicholas insisted he be allowed to hold his baby Jesus throughout the remainder of Mass. What a sensitive child, I thought. How reverent he is, my future priest!
At the moment of transubstantiation, when most parishes herald the miracle with the sound of altar bells, we heard another sound. If you have small children, you know this sound. It is the unmistakable crash of a figurine bursting into tiny fragments. You might be accustomed to hearing it at a relative’s home, or even in a department store. One does not usually associate it with a solemn Mass.
So there he was, our beautiful, valuable, Italian plaster infant Jesus in pieces on the marble church floor.
Following my initial response of crimson blushing and the attempt to repress a litany of language that is definitely not liturgical, I then thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
OK, I confess, I didn’t think of Hopkins until much later, but when I did, I saw the strange beauty of the broken baby Jesus.
We don’t usually associate one of Hopkins’ best-known poems—“God’s Grandeur”—with Christmas, but perhaps we should.
Here is the poem:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The poem bears all the hallmarks of Hopkins’ style, a poetics very different from his 19th-century contemporaries.
Hopkins was born in 1844 and died in 1889, yet he is always considered a 20th-century poet, and is in fact often credited, along with Thomas Hardy, as creating the first poetry that we think of as “modern.” Hopkins’ poetry was so ahead of its time that it was not even published until 1918.
The pivotal moment in Hopkins’ life occurred in 1866 when he converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Like many students at Oxford at the time, Hopkins was swept up in the religious revival that came to be called The Oxford Movement. Among the most famous converts to Catholicism from that movement was John Henry Newman, who rose to the rank of cardinal in the Church, and who actually served as Hopkins’ sponsor for his conversion. The Church didn’t use the RCIA process in the 19th century, but I have often thought about what it would be like to have these two greats in a catechism class!
Hopkins was not just swept up in a momentary religious fervor. Instead, he had a deep commitment to the faith, and in 1877 he was ordained a Jesuit priest, a role in which he served faithfully for the last 12 years of his short life.
Hopkins was much like a curious child in his approach to poetry; he tinkered with and teased at language to create a new kind of poetry, the language of which is as confounding as it is delightful. Reading Hopkins is no easy task, but the reader who understands the poet’s approach to meter and sound, and who attempts to understand what Hopkins called “inscape” and “sprung rhythm,” will be rewarded with a richer comprehension of the work.
For Hopkins, language was the key to understanding the spiritual essence of all things. Hopkins said that “design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry.” The “sprung rhythm” is simply Hopkins’ own way of describing a poetry that eschews traditional meter and stress to achieve a language that approximates the sound and pattern of music. Hopkins’ poetry becomes a master class in “sound and sense,” in which the sound of the poem echoes its literal and figurative meanings.
Hence the use in “God’s Grandeur” of alliteration and assonance—the repetition, respectively, of consonant and vowel sounds—as well as the frequent use of caesura, or pauses within the line. This arrangement of sound patterns reveals the real message of the poem: in spite of man’s waste, and despite his ambivalence, the Holy Spirit watches over the world with genuine concern and with profound love. In the wreckage and fragmentation of the world we distort, God still charges the world with joy.
Hopkins means to use the word “charge” as a synonym; literally, God sparks or ignites creation with his unending mercy not because of what humanity has done, but in spite of it. The charge is not a condemnation, but an invitation to a deeper appreciation for the action of God in life.
There does indeed “live the dearest freshness deep down things,” and though we may miss it, even in Advent, as we trod through the marketplace and sear ourselves with trade, the opportunity to commune with God is always present. Note how Hopkins puns with the word “morning.” God may indeed be sad, or mourning, at what his people do, yet he gives us from day to day the promise of new beginnings.
The broken baby Jesus becomes for me then a perfect analogy not just for Christmas, but also for salvation history. Christ entered into the smeared and smudged world by way of a stable, and was himself broken unto death for our benefit. His sacrifice is our salvation.
Viewed this way, losing the central figure in a Christmas crib becomes then not the result of a child’s carelessness, but of his wonder; not the loss of a material object, but a reminder of what the infant Jesus was actually born to do.
Within the Mass, there occurs a profound action that most people miss. Toward the end of the Communion Rite the priest literally breaks the consecrated Host upon the altar. He is not only breaking bread, but demonstrating Christ’s own body broken for us. This moment, which is called the Fraction, precedes our own reception of the living Christ in the Eucharist.
Ah, Nicholas. Perhaps you are indeed meant to be a priest!
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.