Lord Williams of Oystermouth is inter alia an impressive poet and translator of poetry (especially from Welsh). His first collection of poems appeared twenty years ago and his latest collection (The Other Mountain) was published this fall. It’s an occupation that fits well with the deep concern for language and literature that runs throughout his theological writings, most recently displayed in his Gifford Lectures. And the writing of poetry suits priestly ministry. A few other English ecclesiastics have been pretty decent poets.
Each Advent for the past several years, I’ve found myself returning to one of Williams’s poems, aptly titled “Advent Calendar.” To me the poem captures the mood of eschatological expectation that characterizes the season. “He will come,” is its constant refrain: “He will come like last leaf’s fall. … He will come like frost. … He will come like dark. … He will come like child.”
The multivalent imagery suggests at once the whole arc of Christ’s advent: his coming “to visit us in great humility” and his coming “in his glorious majesty,” as the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent puts it.
He will come like last leaf’s fall. He comes to his own who do not receive him; like the last of the autumn leaves, he lies with the prophets and messengers Jerusalem has killed.
He will come like frost. Christ comes with the surprising beauty of a first frost, as on that one morning when the world found itself awash in the “alien, sword-set beauty” of his resurrection.
He will come like dark. Christ comes on “a day of darkness and gloom” (Joel 2:2), his judgment unsettling our own; he comes, and God’s justice shines forth like “the star-snowed fields of sky.”
He will come like child. Christ comes as a babe in Bethlehem, and the whole creation groans in travail for the new life of the world to come (cf. Romans 8:22).
The poem reminds me of a lyric by Rich Mullins about Christ being born “when the old world started dying / and the new world started coming on.” Christ comes, and it is the end and the beginning.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.