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The Beauty of Christmas Paradox and Irony

6 December, 2011

Yesterday, Janet and I attended a lunch time concert performed by Goldsmiths (University of London) Chamber Choir.  Our middle daughter sang a lovely solo.  The two pieces were Anton Bruckner’s Motets and Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

In Britten’s work he uses some anonymous 15th and 16th centuries poems from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems.  Two pieces specially struck me with the beauty of paradox and irony.  Paradox is defined as a seemingly contradictory statement that, nevertheless, may be true.  Irony is defined as the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite.  When used well, paradox and irony can create the truly beautiful and the the beautifully true.

Two poems stand out, in my opinion.  First, ‘This Little Babe

This little Babe so few days old, is come to rifle Satan’s fold;

All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake;

For in this weak unarmed wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;

His battering short are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes,

His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, haystacks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes;

And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angel’s trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight; stick to the tents that he hath pight.

Within his crib is surest ward; this little Babe will be thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from the heavenly Boy.

And these expressions from ‘In Freezing Winter Night

This stable is a Prince’s court, this crib his chair of State;

The beasts are parcel of his pomp, the wooden dish his plate.

The persons in that poor attire His royal liveries wear;

The Prince himself is come from heaven; This pomp is prized there.

With joy approach, O Christian wight, Do homage to thy King,

And highly praise his humble pomp, which he from Heaven doth bring.

These paradoxes and ironies (hopefully, you spot them) remind me of those other lines by Emily Dickinson:


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

In the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and, supremely, in his agonising death on a Roman Cross, Truth-in-Person, in superb surprise, comes to us.   The paradox and irony are means he often employs so as ‘to dazzle gradually’.  But one day He will return in dazzling glory!  Take the paradox and irony to heart now.

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