Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, 3:5-7, Luke 2:1-20
I bring you a star tonight in the person of Joseph Brodsky (1940-1995). He was exiled from the Soviet Union after spending 18 months in the bitter cold of Arkhangelsk for being a poet. But not just for being a poet, but for answering the court’s question of why he was a poet by saying: “I think it’s . . . from God.” That was the right answer at the wrong time. It got a chilling reception.
Brodsky was exiled upon his release from prison, came to the United States, and eventually settled in Greenwich Village. Subsequent to winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, he was named our Poet Laureate in 1991-92. He studied English early on and used his prison-time to perfect it.
In reading his poetry we find that Joseph Brodsky wrote again and again about Christmas. And in every one of his Christmas poems there is a star. In his 1987 poem entitled “Star of the Nativity” the star is the eye of God:
Keenly. . . .
. . . from far away –
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.
The star, quite brilliantly, is in the stare.
Brodsky returns to the star in his 1990 poem “Nativity”:
Above their encampment
was burning a star, which from this very instant
had no place to go, save the gaze of the infant.
And that infant had already been defined in his poem “December 24, 1971”:
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 the shawl stands revealed
both a new born and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
Well, I could go on like this, but I have an aversion for long talks on festive occasions. I just want to say that Joseph Brodsky, save for his mastery of language, is like us. Christmas conjures up for him a star, the way it might conjure up for us, variously, a Christmas tree or milk and cookies for Santa Claus or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or a Christmas liturgy like this one or something altogether different that is peculiar to ourselves. For Brodsky it was the star. And every time he returns to it, he does so in a slightly different context among different people: shepherds or Mary or Joseph or the Magi or the woman he loves or himself by himself. So the star can have as many associations as it has people who see it. But for Brodsky the star is also his guide to the miracle of Christmas. And he understands miracles very well. He even gives us a recipe for miracles in his poem “25.XII.1993”:
For a miracle take one shepherd’s sheepskin, throw
In a pinch of now, a grain of long ago,
And a handful of tomorrow. Add by eye
A little bit of ground, a piece of sky,
And it will happen. For miracles, gravitating
To earth, know just where people will be waiting,
And eagerly will find the right address
And tenant, even in a wilderness.
Or, if you’re leaving home, switch on a new
Four-pointed star in Heaven as you do,
To light a vacant world with a steady blaze
And follow you forever with its gaze.
That miracle that follows us with its gaze and lights up the vacant world, like all other miracles, means what Christmas means. And that’s one thing only. It means that God has come among us. But sometimes that is hard to see. As Brodsky says of Jesus, “He was but a dot, and a dot was a star.” The challenge to us is to trace the dot to the star and the star to the stable. For the poet observes, “When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us magi” (“December 24, 1971”). From the dot to the star to the stable, Christmas bids us seek the opportunity to discover “a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy in [our selves].” That’s magi enough for me. Christmas can afford neither you nor me a more precious present than that.
*This poem was translated from the Russian by W. S. Merwin, was published in The New Yorker 27 December 1999, p. 72. The other poems quoted here appear in Joseph Brodsky, Collected Poems in English (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).