This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, Issue 20, Volume 3: So This Is Christmas issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

Cheerless friction between darkness and light is the authentic stuff Christmas is made of. The birth of the Savior is a story of hope, certainly, but it is a story steeped in blood, in fear, in running and uncertainty. T. S. Eliot, a notable 20th century poet, confronts this tension in two Christmas poems, “The Journey of the Magi” and “A Song for Simeon.” These poems are not merry couplets about jingling bells and fat gumdrops and the itty bitty baby born, bo-orn, born in Bethlehem. These poems stare straight back into the eyes of a brutal faith, an obstinate belief that a better world was, and is, on its way.


My 3 year old, virtually unfamiliar with holidays, understands Christmas to be a continuation of Halloween. “Ho, ho, ho!” she bellows from her carseat, and then, after a dramatic pause, “Boo!” And then giggles erupt, because the entire holiday season is, for her, a diversion. Preschool monotony tires her, the humdrum sequence of alphabets, blocks, clean-up songs, peanut butter, baby dolls. Three years in, and she is already fatigued of routine, an unconscious, though genuine, existential crisis in toddlerhood. She was born knowing that there is something better. She was born into the waiting.


Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon” begins with a prayer that is also a list, a reminder to the Creator that His creation is both captive and dying. Simeon quickly outlines his situation, his winter, the season of quiet demise. He pragmatically acknowledges that his own life has come to its close, that he is “waiting for the death wind.” And, taking stock of his life, Simeon catalogs his good works, a life poured out in service to others. But when he stacks all of his efforts against the future, he notes their flimsiness: “… where shall live my children’s children/ When the time of sorrow has come?” he asks. He goes on to acknowledge the realization of his fears, his helplessness to protect his descendants from “the time of cords and scourges and lamentation… the stations of the mountain of desolation… the certain hour of maternal sorrow.” When he considers one of a human’s most basic desires—to see his children thrive—he cannot picture such a future. He knows the next generation will suffer.

We wander on a bizarre journey, unsure of what, exactly, we are searching for, and then, Christmas.

And yet, in the midst of such threats, Simeon is neither angry nor panicked. Instead, his foot is tapping, he is checking his watch, he is pacing. Simeon is waiting. He has reached the end of his life and has spent every second in robust expectation that the Messiah will come. But Simeon is running out of time. He has “eighty years and no to-morrow” and no Messiah. His only refrain, “Grant us thy peace,” disrupts the otherwise practical tone of the poem. This one line, this prayer becomes like a breath, a mantra that allows Simeon to face the very worst possibility, the idea that his heirs may flee their homes in Israel.


“What is the most important word?” I often ask my students as we painstakingly analyze literature, line by line. In this case, the answer is a lowly preposition tucked into the title: for. It’s easy to overlook this word, to misquote it as the more commonly used of or by. But this poem, this song, is not wrought by Simeon, the one who has “Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,/ Have given and taken honour and ease.” This is a song for him, a litany of reassurance, a calming, self-voiced monologue, a prayer of the Spirit. He has waited a long time for this music. He has waited his whole life.


I am in the hospital for the birth our second daughter. She is brand new to this world, to light, to air, to temperature variation. Blood is everywhere, and I am starving, distracted, annoyed that we still aren’t prepared with a name for this brand new girl. The nurse hands me the baby. She is beautiful in the distinct way newborns are, but nearly silent. Before I am fully aware of the weight of her seven pounds, seven ounces, she is stolen away. Nurses peer at monitors, watch her chest rise and fall, count her breaths, listen to her gentle wheezes. Someone suggests that her lungs are full of fluid.

We watch her oxygen saturation climb and stagger and lurch. I am counting seconds, texting friends, waiting for their responses that come more quickly than updates from the doctors. I am asking for prayers, thankful that the act of requesting intercession eats up a few seconds of waiting. We are all inhaling, exhaling, together. We are holding our breath with this baby.

And I can only think, in that surreal tension that surrounds the waiting: We need a Savior.


But then, the baby.

Jesus furtively appears mid-stanza, “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.” Simeon will die without witnessing the death and resurrection of God, the culmination of the ages. But he has seen its beginning, and that is enough. He acknowledges, “Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,/ Not for me the ultimate vision.” But even though he will not experience the apogee of prophecy, Simeon concludes, “I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me/ I am dying in my own death and in the deaths of those after me./ Let thy servant depart,/ Having seen thy salvation.” The birth of the Messiah satisfies Simeon. He does not know how the baby Jesus will bring salvation, but he knows, he knows, salvation will come. He cannot describe the coming redemption, and he is sure that redemption will not protect his children and their children from sorrow. Still, there is the faith. Still, there is the peace. The waiting is over.


She scrunches up her face, frowns, then retches over and over. Newborn cries pierce the hot silence of the delivery room. I wipe her tiny mouth, and she takes a deep breath. I exhale with her, thanking God for vomit, thinking that He must be laughing, watching His daughters grow so richly, in such a short space of time.

In the coming hours, she will rest an arm’s length away. I will drift off to sleep, then wake suddenly, and, panicked, rake my fingers over her face. I will press my palm against her chest to feel for a heartbeat. I will risk waking her to assure myself that she is still alive. And then I will slowly relax, remembering that I am powerless to protect her from everything. I will remember to be grateful for today’s salvation.


The Magi King, by contrast, has not spent his life in patient expectation of the coming Jesus. Rather, the first stanza of his poem details the difficulties of his journey, which has been both ambling and earnest. The narrator describes the inconveniences of life on the road, noting logistical hardships, personality conflicts, an assortment of delays that drives his company into traveling during “The very dead of winter.” Most curiously, what is missing from this first stanza is the object of the journey, the naming of the destination. Perhaps that is why the narrator notes “the voices singing in our ears, saying/ That this was all folly.” It seems that the band of travelers is unsure of what, exactly, they are looking for.


I am stopped at an intersection when the leg cramps start up again, and I push my foot down on the car break, willing the muscles to relax. At that moment everything is thrown forward, and my tires screech. Everything is still before I realize what has happened, that another car has smashed into mine, that I am 38 weeks pregnant with our first baby, and that I don’t know if she is alive.

I stop thinking clearly at this point. My only rationale for decision-making is which option will get me to the hospital the quickest. I decide to inspect my car, hoping that I can drive it. Driving, I think, is faster than walking. As I make my way to the back of my car, the driver from the other car approaches me. He reeks of alcohol. “Ma’am!” he bellows, “I would not have hit you if I had known you were with child.” I look down at my enormous middle, and firmly tell my child, out loud, to kick. She doesn’t move.


The second stanza continues the travel log of the wise men. Close analysis reveals all kinds of portentous Christian symbolism—“the three trees” of Calvary, the mantle of Passover, the gambling for silver that foreshadows Judas’ betrayal. But none of this occurs to the narrator. He glides over these trivialities, not realizing their significance. Only later, presumably, can he ruminate over these details and understand the transformative nature of these ordinary moments. He will not know how important this is until it all is over.

The narrator begins the third stanza with a renewed tone of wisdom. He tells us that he would “do it again,” and then, after lines and lines and lines of his sprawling reminiscences, he interrupts himself. “[S]et down/ This… ” he instructs, and then again, as though he has just realized the climax of his own story “… set down This: were we led all that way for/ Birth or Death?”


My friend Jayne arrives, telling nervous jokes and talking me out of leaving before the policemen release us. The other driver brings us a crumpled receipt with some numbers written on the back, presumably, his phone number. “I’m insured,” he brags, trying to pat my hand. I call my husband, who is hurrying back from his brother’s house several miles away. Jayne makes several brave attempts at small talk. We watch the other driver fail a breathalyzer test. Unable to stand the wait a minute longer, I finally ask the cop if I can leave for the hospital. “Sure,” he replies quizzically. “You don’t want an ambulance?”

“No thanks!” I shout over my shoulder, scrambling into my car. My baby still has not moved.


What dies at a birth? The question would be a riddle if the answer wasn’t so obvious. The birth of a baby brings about the death of tension, the expiration of endless anxiety, the end of abundant wishing and chaotic despair. Months of waiting culminate in a birth, and then, they are over. The baby, hope personified, banishes agonized anticipation. What is born in the wise narrator of “Magi” is a sudden interruption, a displacement of certainty. One swift visit to the flesh-wrapped, breathing Infant God topples the Magi’s conception of the world. He cannot unsee what he has seen. He cannot unknow what he now knows. He cannot be “at ease here… With an alien people clutching their gods.” The Christ child rips home away from this King and turns him into a wanderer. He is thrust into an understanding of reality that is so agonizing, he “should be glad of another death.” And so, presumably, he returns to his kingdom and waits to die, unsettled by memories of the journey.


I fumble with the elevator buttons at the hospital. “What a story you will have for your girl!” Jayne exclaims. “One day you will tell her that she survived a drunk driving accident before she was ever born!”

I laugh, hoping that this will become a funny story. Did you catch that? My great hope is to laugh about an inebriated person choosing to operate a vehicle. I hope to laugh about it, because that will mean that everyone survived.

The elevator doors open, and all of the memories of incessant morning sickness, of heartbeat monitoring, of the plain hard work of growing a child come flooding back to me.


His tone is restless, rambling. “Did we travel all this way for/ Birth or Death?”


I place one hand on the front desk of the Labor and Delivery ward, the other on my stomach. The nurse looks up, and I say, calmly, “I am 38 weeks pregnant and I was just in a car accident. I’d like to check on my baby.”

And then, the hard thump of my daughter’s heel, right above my shaking hand.


We return to the routine of Christmas every year. We are often simultaneously unable to sufficiently explain its mystery, unwilling to change our traditions, and unsure of why the Incarnation is such a transformative fact, one that can bring comfort and revolution no matter how many times we’ve encountered it. It is possible to identify with both Simeon and the Magi King. While the miseries and the terrors of the world continue to amass, many of us work our way out of fearful paralysis by quiet faithfulness to ordinary duties. Simultaneously, we wander on a bizarre journey, unsure of what, exactly, we are searching for. We wait as we travel, and travel as we wait. We are, at once, exhausted and adventurous. We anticipate our Savior and go looking for Him.

The baby Jesus will both unnerve us and soothe us. He will wreck our plans and calm our fears. We are full of interminable questions and exhausted by waiting, but He is both the craving and the consummation. He will ask us to die and to be born.

Let us wait for Him, for peace, knowing that this hope will fulfill our longings and kill our kingdoms.

Amanda Wortham teaches writing and literature to a fantastic group of teenagers at a classical Christian high school. She lives in Alabama with her husband, Ben, and their two splendid little girls.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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