An Advent meditation on Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Oxen”, in preparation for Christmas Eve
|Detail of The Holy Family by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661)|
A short “thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation
The Advent and Christmas myths are, of course, fictions and not history. So, if they don’t tell us what happened once-upon-a-time, can they still inspire us to work towards making it possible that some New Being can enter into our world and transform our own way of being in it? Many have hoped so, including the poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy (1840–1928).
In his poem “The Oxen”, published on Christmas Eve, 1915, in the midst of the horror of the First World War, Hardy imagines that at the stroke of midnight, warmed by the embers in hearthside ease whilst watching their flock by night, he and a shepherd recalled together the old folk-tradition in which the oxen in their strawy pen began to kneel before the Christ Child.
However, during the First World War, as in our own capitalist, growth-obsessed and planet-destroying age, the idea that any non-human creature would freely pay homage to any human being can seem to be utterly deluded. It is surely more likely that they would turn away from us in disgust at the cruelty and destruction we have wrought upon their kind and the whole world.
So in what kind of myth would the oxen willingly kneel before a human?
Surely, it would only be before a child whom they sensed could truly bring about a new, kinder, more just, equitable and genuinely sustainable way of being-in-the-world for all sentient and non-sentient beings.
But, as we gather together today, is such a possibility still imaginable for us, even in mythical form? I cannot, of course, answer this for you but, for me, the answer remains “Yes.”
Let us not forget that, in the form of Greta Thunberg and many other young women and men, we have among us fiery John the Baptist-like figures proclaiming a baptism of the heart’s transformation for the forgiveness of our many transgressions against Mother Earth. Greta Thunberg, and others like her, strike me as being the kind of figures about whom the writer of the Gospel of Mark once wrote:
“See, I send forth my messenger before your face, who will prepare your path — A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the Lord’s way, make straight his paths’” (Mark 1:2-4).
Might not Greta Thunberg’s generation be the one to whom children will be born before whom the oxen would be prepared to kneel and pay homage?
Perhaps, perhaps not, but for it to be a possibility — even a possibility only capable at the moment of being uttered in mythical form — then we who are elders need fully to support our children and young men and women in their attempts to proclaim, and then actually to bring about, a true repentance and a radical transformation of the human heart.
And, unbelievably hard though it admittedly is, like Hardy before us, we need to keep alive so fair a fancy that we still wish to weave in these dark years so that, were someone to say to us on Christmas Eve, “Come; see the oxen kneel, in the lonely barton by yonder coomb our childhood used to know”, we should still go with them in the gloom, hoping it might be so.