As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Friday, December 28, 2007

"Christmas Carol" by G.A. Studdert

COME worship the King,
That little white thing,
Asleep on His Mother's soft breast.
Ye bright stars, bow down,
Weave for Him a crown,
Christ Jesus by angels confessed.

Come, children, and peep,
But hush ye, and creep
On tiptoe to where the Babe lies;
Then whisper His Name
And lo! like a flame
The Glory light shines in His eyes.

Come, strong men, and see
This high mystery,
Tread firm where the shepherds have trod,
And watch, 'mid the hair
Of the Maiden so fair,
The five little fingers of God.

Come, old men and grey,
The star leads the way,
It halts, and your wanderings cease;
Look down on His Face,
Then, filled with His Grace,
Depart ye, God's servants, in Peace.

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15th c. Christmas Prayer

Lo, in the silent night
a child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul, o man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

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Syriac Christmas Hymn

Jesus Christ, radiant center of glory,
image of our God, the invisible Father,
revealer of His eternal designs,
prince of peace;
Father of the world to come.
For our sake he took the likeness of a slave,
becoming flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary,
for our sake, wrapped in swaddling bands
and laid in a manger
adored by the shepherds
and hymned by the angelic powers, who sang:
Glory to God in the heavens
and on earth peace and good to men.
Make us worthy, Lord, to celebrate and to conclude in peace
the feast which magnifies the rising of your light,
by avoiding empty words, working with justice,
fleeing from the passions,
and raising up the spirit above earthly goods.
Bless your Church, formed long ago
to be united with yourself through your life-giving blood.
Come to the aid of your faithful shepherds,
of the priests and the teachers of the Gospel.
Bless your faithful whose only hope is in your mercy;
Christian souls, the sick, those who are tormented in spirit,
and those who have asked us to pray for them.
Have pity, in your infinite clemency, and preserve us
in fitness to receive the future, endless, good things.
We celebrate your glorious Nativity
with the Father who sent you for our redemption,
with the life-giving Spirit,
now and for ever and through all ages. Amen

" Moonless darkness stands between" by Gerald Manley Hopkins

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

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"The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy

Old Christmas or Little Christmas (Nollaig Bheag in Irish) is one of the traditional names for January 6.. It is so called because it was, until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the day on which Christmas Day was celebrated.
On Old Christmas Eve, we'd sit 'fore the fire and Mom and Dad and Granny'd tell us about the baby Jesus born in a stable on this night, and they'd say that if we'd go out at midnight we'd see the old elderberry bush blooming in the fence corner right in the show, and that if we peeped in through a chink in our stable and made no racket at all, we'd see the cow and the old mule kneeling down - paying honor to the King of Kings.

All of us would try to stay up until midnight so we could go see the elderberry blossoms, and the bruted kneeling down, but we were all used to going to bed at the edge of dark and we never could keep awake that long. That used to be our Christmas.

It was a good, peaceful kind of time ... Now I guess everybody celebrates the Day this (new) was ... but in the evening of the fifth day of January, I always remember Granny Katty sitting bowed over the fire, singing of the little Babe with dew drops a shining on his cradle.
- Jean Ritchie
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

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"A Christmas Hymn" by Richard WIlber

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
This child through David's city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God's blood upon the spearhead,
God's love refused again.
But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
In praises of the child,
By whose descent among us,
The worlds are reconciled.

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"The Sending of the Magi" by Carmen Bliss

In a far Eastern country
It happened long of yore,
Where a lone and level sunrise
Flushes the desert floor,
That three kings sat together
And a spearman kept the door.
Gaspar, whose wealth was counted
By city and caravan;
With Melchior, the seer
Who read the starry plan;'
And Balthasar, the blameless,
Who loved his fellow man.
There while they talked, a sudden
Strange rushing sound arose,
And as with startled faces
They thought upon their foes,
Three figures stood before them
In imperial repose.
One in flame-gold and one in blue
And one is scarlet clear,
With the almighty portent
Of sunrise they drew near!
And the kings made obeisance
With hand on breast, in fear.
"Arise," said they, "we bring you
Good tidings of great peace!
To-day a power is wakened
Whose working must increase,
Till fear and greed and malice
And violence shall cease."
The messengers were Michael,
By whom all things are wrought
To shape and hue; and Gabriel
Who is the lord of thought;
And Rafael without whose love
All toil must come to nought.
Then Rafael said to Balthasar,
"In a country west from here
A lord is born in lowliness,
In love without a peer.
Take grievances and gifts to him
And prove his kingship clear!
"By this sign ye shall know him;
Within his mother's arm
Among the sweet-breathed cattle
He slumbers without harm,
While wicked hearts are troubled
And tyrants take alarm."
And Gabriel said to Melchior,
"My comrade, I will send
My star to go before you,
That ye may comprehend
Where leads your mystic learning
In a humaner trend."
And Michael said to Gaspar,
"Thou royal builder, go
With tribute to thy riches!
Though time shall overthrow
Thy kingdom, no undoing
His gentle might shall know."
Then while the kings' hearts greatened
And all the chamber shone,
As when the hills at sundown
Take a new glory on
And the air thrills with purple,
Their visitors were gone.
Then straightway up rose Gaspar,
Melchior and Balthasar,
And passed out through the murmur
Of palace and bazar,
To make without misgiving
The journey of the Star.

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"Christmas" by George Herbert

All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,
With full crie of affections, quite astray ;
I took up in the next inne I could finde.

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger ;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger :

Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.

THE shepherds sing ; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymne for thee?
My soul ’s a shepherd too : a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word ; the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light houres.
Then we will chide the sunne for letting night
Take up his place and right :

We sing one common Lord ; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.

I will go searching, till I finde a sunne
Shall stay, till we have done ;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt sunnes look sadly.
Then we will sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay :
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my musick shine.

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"The Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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St. Romanos the Melodist Christmas Hymn

Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born

a little Child, God before the ages. (Isaias 9.5, Psalm 73(74).12.)

Bethlehem has opened Eden, come, let us see;
we have found delight in secret, come, let us receive
the joys of Paradise within the cave.
There the unwatered root (A double allusion to Isaias 11.1 and the virgin birth.)
whose blossom is forgiveness has appeared.
There has been found the undug well
from which David once longed to drink. (2 Kingdoms (2 Samuel) 23.13-17, 1 Chronicles 11.17-19)
There a virgin has borne a babe
and has quenched at once Adam’s and David’s thirst.
For this, let us hasten to this place where there has been born

a little Child, God before the ages

The mother’s Father has willingly become her Son,
the infants’ saviour is laid as an infant in a manger.
As she who bore him contemplates him, she says,
"Tell me, my Child, how were you sown, or how were you planted in me?
I see you, my flesh and blood, and I am amazed,
because I give suck and yet I am not married.
And though I see you in swaddling clothes,
I know that the flower of my virginity is sealed,
for you preserved it when, in your good pleasure, you were born

a little Child, God before the ages.

"High King, what have you to do with beggars?
Maker of heaven, why have you come to those born of earth?
Did you love a cave or take pleasure in a manger?
See, there is no place for your servant in the inn,
I do not say a place, not even a cave,
for that too belongs to another.
To Sara, when she bore a child, (Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, is one of the most frequent types of Christ.)
a vast land was given as her lot. To me, not even a fox hole. (Matthew 8.20.)
I used the cavern where willingly you made your dwelling,

a little Child, God before the ages."

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Brodsky's Christmas Poem

. . . God
has lighted in the blue immense
the planets, icon lamps to glow
before the face we cannot know.

. . . and you
half wish to clench your eyes, or step into
a different galaxy, in whose wastes there shine
more lights than there are sands in Palestine. .

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"The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman" by Emily Dickinson

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman—
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen—

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that 'twould be
A rugged Billion Miles—

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Hamlet on Christmas

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

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"The Mystic's Christmas" by John Greenleaf Whittier

"All hail!" the bells of Christmas rang,
"All hail!" the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God's sweet peace upon his face.

"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

"Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God's creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray monk answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.

"Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

"The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe'er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

"They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

"But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God's exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

"I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!"

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"Ecce Puer" by James Joyce

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!

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"The Thread of Life" by Christina Rossetti

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me: —
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self—chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?—
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

Thus am I mine own prison. Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease:
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking: Why can I not rejoice with you ?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.

Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time's winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanative;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
He bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cool Christmas Icon

I came across this interesting illumination from the Paris Psalter which incorporates a lot of Greek mythological imagery in the service of a Christian meaning. Many thanks to Silouan who decoded most of this for me.

  • The lady in black is Nyx, which means night.
  • The man in the middle is Esaias (Isaiah). The iconograoher painted him to look like John the Baptist, though it makes sense.
  • The child with the torch is Orthros, which means daybreak (it's also the Greek name for the Matins service.)
  • The hand in the clouds is making a Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christ in Greek) which Orthodox priests use when blessing.
Thus, this picture is of Isaiah receiving his vision from the preincarnate Christ at the end of night and the beginning of a new morning - or at the end of an age and beginning of the next. Or, as Isaiah put it (9:2):
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
This is a really fascinating icon for another reason. Roman Mithras was depicted with his two companions, the young men called dadophores. One held his bright torch up and the other held his guttering torch down. This artist has borrowed that motif, though he's certainly put his own stamp on it.

The race that long in darkness pined,
Have seen a glorious Light;
The people dwell in day, who dwelt
In death's surrounding night.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Emmanuel and Elmanuim

The people who were wandering in darkness cried out to heaven, 0
"Great God, come quickly to our aid! Loving Lord, hasten to help us!" 1
Hearing their prayers, God took counsel with Himself.
In a three-fold voice He said, "It is time," and the heavens hushed in wonder.

So the Son stripped Himself of His robes of glory.
He removed His regal crown
His power and wealth were set aside.
And while all things were in quiet silence,
and night was in the midst of her swift course,
the Almighty Word, leapt down out of His royal throne. 2, 3

He came to us in such a poor, pitiful state,
devoid of crown, throne, robes and power; 4
and coming He asked us what we had to give Him.

"My children, I have no clothes, for I have set them aside for love of you.
What have you to give me, to cover my nakedness?"
"We have only the womb of a Virgin. Of her you may take our flesh
though it is diseased with death and stained with sin."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made the flesh clean and living.

"My children, I have no house, for I have left My Father for love of you.
What home have you to give me, to shelter me from the wind?"
"We have only the stable of this Inn, where the sheep and oxen sleep."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made that stable the palace of the wide world and high heavens.

"My children, I have no throne, for I have set aside My seat for love of you.
What throne have you to give me, from which I may administer justice and peace?"
"We have only this manger, the feeding place of ox and donkey."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made that manger more holy than the Ark of the Covenant.

"My children, I have no way to travel, for I who was once all places
have bound myself to this one place for love of you.
What steed have you to give me, that I might ride to your rescue?"
"We have only this donkey, who is used to bear the burdens of his owner."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made that donkey the bearer of the most noble Son of God.

"My children, I have no food, for I who once had no need have made myself needful for love of you.
What meal have you to give me, that I might be nourished for the great battle?"
"We have only this bread and this wine, which will be used for Passover."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made it His broken Body and His blessed Blood.

"My children, I have no crown, for I have laid aside my diadem for love of you.
What crown have you to give me, to show that I am your King?"
"We have only this crown of thorns, which will pierce your brow."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made it more noble than any golden laurel that ever adorned a Caesar.

"My children, I have no sword, for I have laid aside all my power for love of you.
What weapon have you to give me, that I might free you from your oppressors?"
"We have only this cross, on which to hang you."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He defeated both death and sin.

"My children, I have no bed, for I Who was once tireless have become tired in my labors to free you.
What resting place have you to give me, that I may take my Sabbath?"
"We have only this borrowed barrow, the grave of a stranger."
"This will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, He made it the doorway to harrowed Hell and hallowed Heaven.

And the people who had walked in darkness saw the great Light.
God had become naked for them.
God had become homeless for them.
God had become throneless for them.
God had become limited for them.
God had become hungry for them.
God had become thirsty for them.
God had become crownless for them.
God had become weaponless for them.
God had died for them.
God had become one of them.
And they said, "We call Him Emmanuel, for God is truly with us."

And so it was that, in obedience and humility, the Son took all that He was given and made it blessed.
And all that had been laid aside was returned to Him, power, throne, crown, robes and glory. 6
He turned again to earth and said,

"My children, you have no gifts, for all that was once Mine is restored to me.
What tribute have you to give me, that I may know of your love?"
"We have only our failing flesh, our weak wills and our poor hearts,
but we give them to You to do with as you would."
"These will I take," He replied.
Yet, in the taking, God-with-us changed our names to we-with-God.

I wrote this poem for my father's Christmas Cantata, to go between two versions of Veni, Veni Emmanuel (one for Christmas and one for Holy Week). It was meant to bridge the Cradle and the Cross. I melded three things together for the final product. The first is an Orthodox Vespers prayer for Christmas Night:
What shall we offer thee, O Christ,
Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man?
Every creature made by thee offers thee thanks.
The angels offer thee a hymn;
The heavens a star;
The magi, gifts;
The shepherds, their wonder;
The earth, its cave;
The wilderness, the manger:
And we offer thee a Virgin Mother.
O God from everlasting, have mercy upon us.
The second is the Good Friday Reproaches, spoken by Christ on the Cross to His people:
My people, What have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I led you out of Egypt; but you led your Savior to the Cross.
For forty years I led you safely through the desert,
I fed you with manna from heaven,
and brought you to the land of plenty;
But you led your Savior to the Cross.

O, My people!
What have I done to you that you should testify against me?
Holy God. Holy God. Holy Mighty One. Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
The final is the final verse of In the Bleak Midwinter:
What then shall I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
But what I can I give Him, give Him my heart.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"Gloria in Profundis" by G.K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is split on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

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