Monday, January 5, 2009


Don't tell my in-laws, but when my wife and I visit them, we take whatever they want to give us ... then bring it home to toss or re-cycle or donate. It's our way of helping them do what they won't do themselves: clean out their cluttered later years and reduce the risk of them falling over stuff! Over Thanksgiving weekend we came back with a few surprisingly apt and timely "gifts," including a locally self-published Advent devotional booklet.

It would not have survived the re-cycle bin as a devotional resource. I had already started the excellent book by Walter Wangerin, Preparing for Jesus. About which, more anon. No, A Labyrinth of Wonders, while an arresting title in itself, has little to commend it: it is not attractively bound, is poorly laid out, and the devotional reflections are unevenly insightful at best. No, what grabbed my attention long enough to look at it - and then to read it through Christmas - was the sub-title: "Advent Meditations on 17th Century Poets". Hey, I love those guys!

The major names are well represented: John Donne, George Herbert, Robert Herrick. John Milton. Nahum Tate was a nice surprise, and Ben Jonson. I am pretty sure the name Henry Vaughan rang a bell. But my familiarity with the century did not include Francis Quarles or Sidney Godolphin; Joseph Beaumont? Edward Taylor (Puritan?)? Well, you get the idea. Maybe these are all known to English Lit majors, but their inclusion guaranteed that I would be reading some new poetry while preparing for Christmas.

What put me off a little was the apparently random order of the poems. And especially since the poetry is not all, strictly speaking, Advent, but rather covers Advent through Epiphany ... though not sequentially. Well, happily I had Pastor Wangerin to do that for me, so I could just enjoy a 17th century poem each morning while my wife's tea steeped and coffee grounds soaked in my french press.

The following poem appeared way too early for my liturgical sense and taste. I'm sorry, but December 9 is nearly a month too soon for a poem dealing with the Magi. In my church setting, maybe we'd use this in the final days before Christmas - I'd try to push it to the 1st Sunday after, myself, at the earliest. But that doesn't diminish the poem itself or its devotional impact. And I am thankful for this funny little "Advent" book and the rich poetry it introduced to me this past month.

So, here, in its time, is
Royal Presents

The offerings of the Eastern kings of old
Unto our Lord were incense, myrrh and gold;
Incense because a God; gold as a king;
And myrrh as to a dying man they bring.
Instead of incense, Blessed Lord, if we
Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee,
Instead of myrrh if we can but provide
Tears that from penitential eyes do slide,
And though we have no gold, if for our part
We can present thee with a broken heart,
thou wilt accept and say those Eastern kings
Did not present thee with more precious things.

Nathaniel Wanley, 1634-1689

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