Advent with the Poets: ‘The Coming’ by R.S. Thomas

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Blog Series for the Final 12 Days of Advent
Throughout the year, I listen for voices that evoke the spirit of a season. The seasons of the Christian year lead us into depths that human beings will neither exhaust nor fully comprehend. The essence of any God-given mystery is that there is always some new dimension awaiting our discovery. We will never touch the bottom of this sea.
Yet each season of the Christian year invites a deeper discovery of the mystery of salvation given through Jesus. Entering Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter is not simply a rote rehearsal of what we already know about Jesus. Each season summons us to explore that which we have not yet seen about the beauty and mystery of God.
Poets are seekers who devote their lives to this search for God’s beauty. Not all poets, of course, but those who meditate on the story of Jesus usually find their way into the themes of the Christian year, wrestling with their questions and hopes over the course of a lifetime.
Gathering these voices in one place is not an easy task. But there’s good resources on the internet of those who have begun this work. I highly recommend two websites who have gathered these voices in one place: Daniel Clendenen and Kingdom Poets.
But I’m interested to expand these voices, especially in the context of this Advent season. Over the final 12 days of Advent, I will post a series of poems from Advent poets who help me enter into the mystery of this season more deeply. These will be specifically Advent poems, not Christmas poems, though the catalogue of Christmas verses could certainly expand from lesser known voices, too.
During these final two weeks of Advent, I hope that reading a poet who you have never met will be like meeting a new and interesting friend. I hope that reading a new poem from a familiar poet you know would be like discovering something new and beautiful in a friend you’ve loved for years.

Today’s Poet

Today I begin with R.S. Thomas, a 20th century Anglican poet-priest from Wales.

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
                 On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
*R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990, p. 234.

Why this poem belongs in Advent

The word ‘advent,’ is derived from the Latin word ‘adventus,’ which means ‘coming.’ So the subject and title of Thomas’ poem evokes the central theme of Advent: the coming of Christ to earth. Thomas takes on a ‘sanctified imagination’ in this poem, considering the conversation between the Father and Son about the crisis of humanity’s descent into chaos and destruction. Imagining the Son’s relationship with the Father before the Incarnation helps one ponder the full meaning of Christ’s coming to earth.

Meditation and some probable poetic misinterpretation

Thomas, a 20th century priest in rural Wales, enters deeply into the toil and suffering of Wales and her people throughout his poetry. In this sense, a small farming community or even the whole nation herself reminds one of Israel’s suffering and her longing for redemption, the central storyline of Advent. Though Wales may or may not be implicitly invoked here, the ‘scorched land’ or ‘crusted buildings’ may refer to his homeland. But it could refer to any land broken and torn by sin and death.
These stark images evoke brokenness and even chaos. The river, a source of life, has become a source of death, ‘a bright/ Serpent, a river/ Uncoiled itself, radiant/ with slime.’ How will that which was intended for life become life-giving again?
The second stanza imagines the Son’s response to what the Father asked him to see. Interestingly, the Father tells the Son ‘Look’ in the first stanza, but does not compel him to ‘go’ into the madness. That decision rests with the Son alone. Yet the Son’s decision is withheld until the final line. Every line intensifies the images of suffering and pain that the Son beholds after his Father bid him ‘Look.’ After taking in the full view of human suffering, every image of desolation reaches its climax on ‘a bare hill’ with ‘its crossed Bough.’ The Son does not look away from what his Father bid him see. Looking deeply into the barren hill and the crossed Bough, the Son finally responds. And his response echoes the shockwaves of his love throughout heaven: ‘Let me go there, he said.
Advent speaks much about our calling to watch and wait for the coming of the Lord, but Thomas imagines a different kind of watching: the Son watching and looking deeply into our pain. This is the reason for his Coming, a decision he freely made with unimaginable love for us.