Every year, as close to Epiphany as we can get it and still have it fall on a weekend, Bette and I invite friends over to read W. H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being” together. It takes about three hours, start to finish, if you count the time we take for the comments between sections, the frequent trips back to the table and the bar, and all the side conversations that happen when you collect a bunch of interesting people in one room. It was a superb group again this year—some church people, some book group people, some Starbucks people. “All three of our churches,” as Bette might put it.
“For The Time Being” is a huge sprawling poem with intricate rhymes in some parts and flat-out bawdy commentary in other parts. Every stanza of “The Voices of the Desert,” when the Holy Family is fleeing to Egypt, ends with a limerick. That tells you something.
It’s not a hard poem to read. We have good readers and not so good readers every year and everyone does just fine. It is hard, however, to understand. The whole poem is a single argument. It begins with the world in sad shape and proceeds through the Incarnation, with Joseph and Mary and the Wise Men and the Shepherds and all those capitalized roles that everyone knows so well. It ends with a vision of a redeemed world—two visions really; one theologically grand and the other about how to straighten the house up after all the holiday parties. That much tells you that the argument moves from a condition through and event to an altered condition. It is a narrative. It is an argument.
On the other hand, the language is so rich that it is hard to pay attention to the argument. Here is a particularly rich excerpt. The stone is content/With a formal anger and falls and falls; the plants are indignant /With one dimension only and can only doubt/Whether light or darkness lies in the worse direction.
I love language like that. The continual falling of a stone as “a formal anger,” for instance, moves my mind toward wordplay and serious thought at the same time and there are lots of small passages like that.
Then, when you pull back just a little and see the argument—which was always there—it is a little bit like catching a glimpse of the muscle beneath the skin. “Why do I keep forgetting it is there?” you ask yourself.
Today, in celebration of this year’s reading of the Auden poem, I am going to look at that sequence of skin, then muscle; at language, then narrative.
I will start with a stanza about old people. This one catches my eye every year partly because I am old, myself, and partly because the prospect of the death they describe is half exuberance and half hilarity. The old people’s stanza comes in a series like this: a) let number and weight rejoice, b) let even the great rejoice, c) let even the small rejoice, d) let even the young rejoice, and finally, e) let even the old rejoice. That’s a lot of rejoicing and you would think that anyone with half a mind would ask, “Hey. What’s all the rejoicing about?” But until this year, I didn’t ask that.
Here’s what I did instead.
Let even the old rejoice
The Bleak and the Dim, abandoned
By impulse and regret,
Are startled out of their lives;
For to footsteps long expected
(There’s a Way. There’s a Voice.)
Their ruins echo, yet
The Demolisher arrives
Singing and dancing
I noticed that the old are described as “The Bleak and the Dim.” I liked that. It captures different dimensions of what “being old” is like for a lot of people. For the same reason, I liked “abandoned by impulse and regret.” When I think of impulses, I think of those sudden, powerful decisions to do something or the experience of being overcome by desire for something. They are, in either case, something that happens to you. Regrets are sometimes produced by acting on the impulses, but other times, the regret is a part of not acting on the impulses. Reflecting back on a life from the position of great age makes both of those real. But they are not current. They are not what your life is like then. These great impulses and regrets have abandoned these old people and now they must do without them.
Then death approaches—The Demolisher—as they knew it would. These are “footsteps long expected” and their ruined bodies echo the footsteps they hear. That is what they have always expected, but that is not what happens. The Demolisher arrives, in fact, singing and dancing and inviting them all to sing and dance with him. Now that’s the way to die.
I was so taken by this characterization of the old and The Demolisher that I forgot that the singing and dancing of the old is just a part of the singing and dancing. The young are singing and dancing too, and the great and the small. So, having noticed that this year for the first time, I find I am back to the question I said anyone with half a mind would be asking, which is: What’s all the singing and dancing about?
These stanzas are part of a section called “The Annunciation,” but which I, given my own choice, would call by a broader name. I would call it “The Incarnation.” I would call it Emmanuel, “God With us.” That is what has happened. That’s why all the singing and dancing.
And this brings us to what we grew up calling “the Christmas story.” Mary and Joseph and the Wise Men and the Shepherds and all that—all of whom, as well as the Star of the Nativity, are characters in the poem. But Auden takes us to the heart of that whole process. He goes to the visit of the angel Gabriel to the young woman, Mary. Joseph’s fiancée, you remember. Gabriel appears to Mary and says, “Will you do this very difficult thing because God needs it done?” And Mary says, “Yes. I will.” As a transaction, it is as simple as that.
To Auden, it isn’t just a transaction. Auden provides a setting for this event. To use the same metaphor he gives to Mary, her saying yes would be like a diamond lying on a table. But her saying yes in the context of what God wants for us all is like a diamond mounted in an exquisite setting.
Here’s what Mary says.
My flesh in terror and fire
Rejoices that the Word
Who utters the world out of nothing,
As a pledge of His word to love her
Against her will, and to turn
Her desperate longing to love,
Should ask to wear me,
From now to their wedding day,
For an engagement ring.
Remember that this speech, beautiful as it is on its own, is part of a narrative. The terror and fire that Mary experiences are part of the same story that the Bleak and the Dim old people experience, but it is because of what Mary says that “the Demolisher arrives, Singing and Dancing.” That, to refer one more time to my question, is “what all the singing and dancing is about.”
What does Mary say? If you crushed it and forces it into prose, what would it mean? Here’s what I think it means. The Word (God)who uttered the world out of nothing has pledged to love her (the world, or, more briefly, us) no matter what. This love will have its final and necessary and appropriate conclusion in “the Great Wedding;” the final reconciliation of God and humankind which He has been arranging for a very long time. The Great Wedding, in other words, has been preceded by “the Great Courtship,” which is what is going on now.
Why has it taken so long? It turns out that we were not sure God could be trusted as a suitor. He has had to love us against our will. He has had to turn our desperate longing into love. And for it to happen at all, we would need to continue to believe that it could happen. That is why there must be “an engagement ring” for us to see and it is why Mary consented to be that engagement ring.
That is what she says. “My flesh in terror and fire rejoices that the Word should ask to wear me as a sign of His trustworthiness until the very day of the Great Wedding.” You have to throw away a lot of very beautiful words to find that sentence. You have to know who “the Word” is and who “the world” is and what “their wedding day” is, but when you know those things, you can make this sentence. You can read “My flesh in terror and fire rejoices…” and know, at last, that that is what all the Singing and Dancing is about.
 Epiphany as a special day offers difficulties for us. We celebrate Advent according to Matthew’s story on one year and according to Luke’s story the next year. Since Epiphany is connected to the visit of the Magi, which occurs only in Matthew’s account, we have nothing to celebrate in Luke’s year. This was Matthew’s year, so there was no tension to feel.
 In fact, it a very good representation of the final stage of life which, according to Erik Erikson, is characterized by “integrity” by those who embrace it, and by “despair” by those who do not.
 It reminds me of the last scene of The Milagro Beanfield War where Amarante Cordova, the sick old man who has saved the town and the Coyote Angel (Death, personified as in the Auden poem) set off for the party they can hear from just over the hill. “It seems like such a long way,” says the Coyote Angel. “I know a short cut.” And they move off together, laughing and telling stories and are not seen again.
 It is as simple as Jesus’s response to God on the night before his crucifixion. Jesus prays, “Is this really the only way?” God responds, “I’m afraid so. No one else can do this and now is the time.” Jesus says, “Then bring it on.” In all honesty, this paraphrase leans on Luke’s version more than on Matthew’s and Mark’s.