The Miracle of Belief (Poems for Christmas #4)

716mY1qbPcLThe Christmas season is, among other wonderful things, one of the times that I try to inflict my taste in poetry on the unsuspecting readers of BCC. In past years, this has involved T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Christina Rosetti  and W.H. Auden. This year, I turn to the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky, who made it a habit to write a nativity poem (almost) every Christmas from 1962 through 1995. The poems have been translated by some of the greatest poets in the English language–folks like Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur–and published as a single volume. It is one of the most frustrating, beautiful, contradictory, profane, and sacred things that I have ever read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What makes the poems so frustrating, but also so beautiful, is that Brodsky does something different than most poets do when they talk about the Nativity. Like them, he wants to explain a miracle–but it is not the miracle of the virgin birth or that of God made flesh. Rather, he focuses on the miracle of our belief in these things in a world so patently incompatible with that belief.

My favorite of these poems is called simply “December 24, 1971,” after the day it was composed. The first three stanzas of the poem talk about Christmas shopping, casting the shopper in the role of the three Magi. The next two verses get to the heart of the matter, and, I think, to Brodsky’s lifelong struggle with the meaning of the Nativity:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

For Brodsky, “the basic mechanics of Christmas,” refers to the eternal tug-of-war between emptiness and wonder, which is also the dialectic between oppression and faith. None of wants to live in a universe devoid of meaning, structure, and purpose. The reign of Herod is the reign of emptiness, where meaning and virtue have been replaced by the naked exercise of power. The stronger this reign gets, the more it calls forth its opposite. The reality of Herod calls forth belief in Christ.

Brodsky maps the borderland where hope becomes faith–where we believe because we desperately need to believe, because we cannot live well in this life without without having faith in something beyond our own existence. Logically, of course, this is a fallacy. As I have told students more times than I can count, one’s need or desire for something to be true has no bearing on whether or not something actually is true. Truth is independent of your needs.

But this is how Herod talks. It is Gradgrind telling Louisa “never wonder” because humanity has already figured out everything that needs figuring out. But this is wrong. Humans need wonder. We need to have things we can’t comprehend to remind us of just how limited our comprehension is. Unless we are constantly presented with things beyond our understanding, we will have to settle for knowing the things we already know and living the life we can already imagine.

But Christmas is a time of wonder. As we ponder the miracle of the Nativity, we are allowed a sideways glance at the Kingdom of God–a state of being that we can hardly even imagine, but one that (the New Testament tells us) we can have whenever we want it enough to give up the selfishness and hatred that prevent us from having it. We don’t exactly give these things up during Christmas time, but we dial it back just enough to see what might be possible, giving us the “sort of good will touched with grace” that Brodsky presents as characteristic of the season.

And this, too, is a miracle–one that Brodsky recreates before our eyes in the final verses of the poem:

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
a star.


  1. Inflict away! I am thrilled to learn about Brodsky from what you have sampled here, I think I finally have something for my Christmas wish list after a few years of basically having no good advice for those who are inclined to ask. I am not sure why you say the poems are frustrating, is it because of the seemingly dominant ascendancy of emptiness vs wonder? Anyway, thank you so very much. Lona

  2. Thank you. But enough talk. I’m going to listen and wonder now.

  3. Amen.

  4. Thanks for this, Mike.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    Thanks Mike–was hoping that Bob Rees’ poems would be out for Christmas but they won’t make it so I will get Brodksy–

  7. I’m all for more of your taste in poetry.