Christopher Smart was an English poet who lived just before the American Revolution. He contributed regularly to a couple of popular magazines in London, but he was eventually locked away in a mental institution by his father-in-law for various reasons. Smart accumulated so many debts throughout his adult life that he was finally placed in a debtors’ prison, where he died of an illness at age 49.
I just learned about Christopher Smart because of a poem he wrote, entitled The Stupendous Stranger, which has been set to music. One of the choirs in which Tara and I sing will be performing this piece of music at an upcoming Christmas concert this month. The poem is rather short, just two verses long. I offer this to you as an Advent reflection:
Where is this stupendous stranger?
Gentle shepherd, now advise.
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
show me where my Savior lies.
O Most Mighty! O Most Holy!
Far beyond the seraph’s thought,
art thou then so weak and lowly
as unheeded prophets taught?
O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
if eternal is so young!
God all bounteous, all creative,
whom no ills from good dissuade,
is incarnate, and a native
of the very world he made.
Sometimes the most powerful ideas are contained in just a few words. I fear that anything I write here might detract from the impact of Smart’s poem on my life – and, perhaps, on yours – so I will keep these comments brief.
Jesus is the stupendous stranger whom we meet as the baby in Bethlehem. The contrasts of this poem are remarkable: great and meek, strong and weak, eternal and young, creating and incarnate, strange and native. Jesus is all of these things.
How can we ask “What Child Is This?”, as the Christmas carol goes, when he is the very one who created Mary, the one on whose lap he is now sleeping?
How can we speak “sleep in heavenly peace,” as the Christmas carol goes, when this tender and mild infant is the immensely powerful God of all creation?
How can we sing “welcome to our world,” as the recent song by Chris Rice goes, when this child is not really a stranger to this world at all?
Perhaps we are the strangers whom God graciously invites to approach his manger. Perhaps we are the visitors who get to meet someone who is so unlike ourselves (immortal, strong, creator, master) yet who is very much like us (enfleshed, weak, vulnerable, native). Perhaps we are the gentle shepherds who are called to escort others to the manger, to the cross, to the tomb, to the Table.
Perhaps we are simply those who read Christopher Smart’s words and pause in awe and thanksgiving. The Stranger is now native. The Creator is among us. The Baby is eternal. The Weak is our Strength.