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Last year during Advent, some friends gathered in our living room to read aloud one of the greatest poems written about the season and of Christmas. W.H. Auden’s epic  For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio was written in 1941-2. He had just lost his mother and his lover and it was World War II. Out of this tumult, he wrote a sweeping poem that brings the incarnation smack into our mundane lives. It’s longer than Macbeth, but it is worth it! The themes, the language, the scope remain bracingly fresh and relevant for today. Peter Steinfels, in a New York Times review wrote, “Auden's is a Christmas that can glimpse redemption even in the trivialization of Christmas, in the frantic shopping, distracted gaiety and unsuccessful attempts, as he says, to love all of our relatives. This is a Christmas for the day after Christmas. This is a Christmas for grown-ups[1].”


Here’s an oft-excerpted sample:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers…

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all[2].

Auden masterfully uses contemporary and colloquial language to express the life changing significance of the incarnation and our own dim apprehension of it on most days. As we read aloud the poem, taking on the many parts, which includes a technocratic Herod, a philosophical Simeon, and a Joseph who must bear the sins of the patriarchy, our voices and our listening started to incarnate the poem, changing us in subtle ways and sticking in our memories. We also laughed a lot. Auden is not above a good joke. We also laughed along with our own vulnerabilities. This was not a staged reading. We came to the reading pretty cold, not having read it all in advance nor necessarily grasping it all. But reading this literature together was, simply, a converting experience. When we consider the ways that Christian formation can happen, this is one of them.

The model for study and learning that we embrace in this diocese is that which comprises the whole person: mind, heart, and practice. This simple event engaged the whole person. The conceptual richness and cornucopia of ideas proffered by Auden’s poem, the attention we needed to read the poem with good expression engaged our minds, the range of emotional states expressed by the characters and Auden’s evocative imagery, rhythm, and line stirred our hearts, and the ways in which we were brought to honest repentance for our own realpolitik, technocratic ways of thinking and for obscuring the luminosity of the Christ event resurrected our practice and offered a redeemed way to go about daily life.

I have no doubt that other works of literature, read and shared, can have this impact. The enduring popularity of book clubs seems to give credence to this. Sometimes, though, having a focus on a richly Christian work of art may provide for a formational outcome. Especially when it’s brought to our attention in a relevant season of the Christian calendar and when it is done in community. This year, we are going to try again – this time reading the first play from Dorothy Sayers’ play cycle, The Man Born to be King. Perhaps this kind of formational event might be one that works for you and others gathered with you.

[1] Peter Steinfels, “Beliefs” New York Times, December 22, 1990,

[2] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Press, 2013). Edited by Alan Jacobs.