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Agony in the Advent

October 30, 2010

When talking with a friend about Advent and its liturgies he commented that he imagined that the arrival of a new heaven and earth would be an unpleasant event which would take some getting used to and growing into.

When I read this poem by Rowan Williams I was reminded of our conversation.

Great Sabbath

by Rowan Williams

Unwatched the seventh dawn spreads,
Light smoothing out the sky, firm hands
Smearing a damp clay horizon-wide.
They wake, then lie unsurely side by side,
Knowing the ache and pull of novel bands,
The night’s new memories grinding in their heads,


Not understood, their bodies newly strange.
Outside, the new light soaks the ground;
They chill, turn in towards each other’s heat,
Then roll apart to test uncertain feet
On unknown earth. The dripping dawn around
Confirms the unformed fear. The world can change.


Outside an absence. While they learned and slept,
It had drawn off behind the sky’s stone face.
The world between their bodies and their palms
Is left to turn. The silence calms.
The morning’s news is plain; the center space
Is empty. Under the tress where he once stepped


It is for you to go. Under the gaping sky
You wake, he sleeps, you make, he lies at rest.
He will not come again; last night you made
A future he will not invade.
Today the sun is buried, unexpressed;
You shall shape how to live and how to die.


You shall make change. He leaves no room
For his own hand; you shall be history,
You shall build heaven, you shall quarry hell.
No one shall say you have (or not) made well.
And bored and pious, talk of mystery,
When weeds are choking up his tomb.


We make, he sleeps. Only his bloody dreams
Tell him the works of freedom on the earth.
Your liberty his flight, your future and his death.
He dreams your hell for you to draw your breath,
Out of his emptiness he lets your birth,
It is his silence echoes back the screams.


For they have not forgotten everything;
They wake and lie unsurely side by side
And listen to a laboured, steady breath,
Insistent, unconsoled, remembered death.
A small-hours passing on the turning tide,
Alone and never taught what key to sing.


He will not come again, not in the form
He walked on your first earth. But will you know
Him when he slips, a dosser, through the door?
Oh yes. Who else will touch the raw
Salt, unhealed memory of worlds ago,
Whispering, once you knew, once you were warm.


Listen for promises, fantasize for care,
And you will fill the neutral sky with lead,
Make chains to stop the quiet flow of chance,
Sell all your working for a stripper’s dance.
He chose his death; why can he not be dead,
And leave the bloody dreams at home elsewhere?


Drink up your tears; you can no longer need
The luxury of an old, cheap compassion.
To bury him may be heavy cost,
But buys our future when today is lost,
Buys the clean stone from which we can refashion
Our image sorted by his remembered greed.


He asks his present back; the clay-daubed hands
Are picking at the dyke. Weep and you will unmix
The mortar, and the salt black sea will run
And catch and trip and drown us, one by one.
For walls are weaker than their strongest bricks.
Behind our stone, the moon-fed tide expands


To flood our fens. We walk with desperate care,
The locks are fragile and the wind is swelling,
Windows will rattle us awake, eyes wide,
To stare, lying unsurely side by side,
Quiet and fearful; there is no telling
What dreams will flesh out of the noisy air.


The stones had fallen down. We woke too late.
He has unlatched the house, smashed through the pains,
And take back his gross siegneurial right
While we slept out our sixth and darkest night,
Today he swills the cultivated plains,
Salting our clay; reclaiming our estate.


from The Poems of Rowan Williams (2002, Eerdmans), pp. 42-44.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 31, 2010 8:54 am

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful stuff. Thanks for sharing this Bruce. BTW, I think you meant that this poem came from The Poems of Rowan Williams. 😉

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