The Feast of the Nativity

Struck by the stench of whiskey-soured vagrants
As I pass through the station vestibule
And see their metal carts stuffed full of tattered
And wind-whipped plastic bags, their potted bellies,
It’s hard to accept that we are called to praise.
What shout of joy amid such poverty?
The drained mouth of a flask gapes in its corner.

Not far from here, the body of a girl
Leans over fresh pricked flesh, slumps, then contracts
On the snow-dusted field outside the library.
They’ll find her later, limbs already cold,
While others find starved children in a basement,
The father’s mug shot blank-stared, hollow-cheeked.
After the bang, cries sift up over Mosul.

Remembering some unsated ache, we grow
Indignant that we’re not just called to praise,
But ordered: Every knee must bend to stone
At the sound of his name. O, how can we,
Seeing the withered husks that crowd the camps,
The bulging eyes that peer from scoured sockets,
Because, it seems, there’s nothing to be done?

Because amid the crash of bombs, a wedding
Has taken place inside a broken courtyard.
Because a woman in a wheelchair, legs
Bird-like and folded underneath her lap-robe,
Presses a string of beads in mumbled prayer.
Because a square of butter gives itself
Away in runnels through the mashed potatoes.

My daughter, not yet three, once chanced to run
Into a room where young Dominican
Nuns sat, upright and pale, with faces laughing.
As she rushed past, a sister swept her up
In one great motion of her vast white habit,
Enfolding her, an hour, with placid love
Wherein she rested, object of sweet praise.

Amid impoverishment, a plenitude,
A verdant weight of odd abundance, comes,
Like heavy glass bulbs on a Christmas tree,
Their blue and red and gold hung at the limit
Of metal hooks, the fir’s unruly needles
Bending with the encumbrance; and, beneath,
The ribboned boxes keep their generous counsel.

Yes, all these things present themselves, will cleave
Us with their differences, as if one world
Rebuked the other by its gaudy show.
But no. It is the bared branch that buds green,
The soon-to-be-pierced hand that heals the ear,
The night frost now receives the infant’s cry,
And a poor belly sits down to its feast.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
More: Christmas

The latest from america

Did the pope “endorse” civil unions? (Yes.) Were Francis’ words mistranslated? (No.) Is this “old news”? (Yes and no.)
Colleen DulleOctober 22, 2020
Zimbabwe riot police break up a protest for better pay and personal protective equipment by nurses in Harare in July. (AP photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
The latest move to militarize Zimbabwean society appears an attempt not to reward career military officers who remain loyal to the ruling ZANU-PF party but to exert control over a different group of professionals who have been pressing for reform.
Marko PiriOctober 22, 2020
Can textualists judges like Amy Coney Barrett take a broad view of interpreting the Bible and a narrow view of interpreting the Constitution? The short answer is yes, writes Matt Malone, S.J.
Matt Malone, S.J.October 22, 2020
Twitter users swapped "pope memes" last week using digitally altered images of Pope Francis celebrating the Eucharist. Was it harmless fun or sacrilege?
James T. KeaneOctober 22, 2020