This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.
For whatever reason, I remain taken with the idea of Satan struggling to accept that he has been defeated by an Infant and His Mother. A few sparks from literature and pop culture also came to mind, for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Scrooge’s promise at the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to discuss Bob Cratchit’s situation “over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” and the exchange between Captain Jack Sparrow and Gibbs in the Tortuga tavern in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
It may be easier to print and read in this format. Apologies to the Bard—I hope a few of you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!
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Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.
Well met, my friends! Pray, sit. How goes the fight?
Aright, my lord—still tilted and well spun:
Like every year they give themselves to gold
and live beyond their means. They send their wealth
into the world to win the blesséd day,
and, spending freely, are themselves well spent.
They stretch for more and more, and come up short…
A grand report—not more so for its length.
These men are naught if not predictable.
And you, my constant friend: Expanding still?
Where will is weak, the flesh is always game.
Devil (raising his mug)
The same. A toast, then—what? The barrel’s bare!
I swear, m’Lord, it wasn’t’ ere you sat!
I’ll vouch for that. Barkeep! A flagon more!
The score, it seems, is settled well above:
Like dogs are quick to please, so, too, are men—
not bright, but able apes, to imitate
the World in pointing fingers, casting blame.
And gasping, grasping for the Flesh’s gain,
the meatlings gamely carve and eat themselves.
The shelves are bare, and still they seek for more!
Their store of self-indulgence well supplied…
Their pride disguises lust as just reward;
When pleasure turns to pain, still they persist.
Solicitous of foe, feckless with friend…
Their end, predictable and pitiless!
They disregard eternity is theirs.
Humanity knows not the gift of God,
and rushes, loud and laughing, to its doom,
along the path so many men have trod.
In guise of generosity they gain
the world, its weight and all its empty show.
In colored paper, wrap their petty pride,
and bind themselves to mammon with a bow.
Their appetites they kindle all the more
with feasting, as with drink they loose their guard.
Their lust prefers a shovel to a rope;
they sink an inch, then deeper dig a yard.
My servants, if you’ve done your worst quite well,
Such hapless souls ought soon be safe in Hell.
(The fire is brighter and crackling louder now.)
Not more so for his eloquence.
Since you can’t cork your mouth, uncork your purse,
and buy a round. My mug is dry.
I’m spent as always; he’s the moneyed one.
Let him buy—gods, it’s hot in here! A beer!
Here, barkeep, three—a barrel, better yet!
The Master’s here, and all the news is good.
Would that were true. Alas, I’ve just returned
from visiting the world that you acclaim
as lost to avarice and gluttony.
Amid the glitz and glitter there pervades
the image of joy-filled family
a virgin mother, father, and a son.
A glimpse of godly purity and peace
that lures their hearts away from base desires
to Him whose love they welcome at His word.
I’ve heard this story told a thousand ways,
m’lord, among the children of the earth.
They speak as though their god were one of them
and condescending to a virgin birth
would save them from the sinner’s dreadful debt…
And yet succumb to sin they do, and die—
can our great enemy truly prevail?
It seems to me a ploy, a lark, a lie
to keep these stupid humans in their place.
Their race, indeed, is broken and bereft
of grace, but how else is it they ascend
to Him instead of falling here below?
Should not our ears be ringing with their cries?
If things above are awful as they seem,
why are we starved for souls? Your efforts there
are not so fully fruitful as you think!
A drink! That blasted barkeep left us dry!
A lie—this love of god—it makes no sense
to seek the good of others selflessly!
What profit, gaining souls of all the world
at price of death and loss of dignity?
But He refrains to count the cost, or worse,
regards the loss as truly worth the gain.
The strain of striving to make sense of Him
whose temp’rance favors mercy to the lash—
it sets ablaze my brain, my blood aboil.
a drop would help, at least, to cool my tongue.
That barman now avoids my thirsty eye!
You’ve drunk him dry!
Who, I? Do you forget
that I am broke? You are the greedy one!
(The two gaze in fear at their master, and the fire roars.)
Our failure is complete: Mankind persists
in sin that should exclude it from its home,
but God, in baseless hope of faithfulness,
debases His divinity and comes
to earth, a wriggling, howling, helpless babe
born in a cave to bear the weight of sin.
That once He came to earth would be enough,
but He has promised to return again.
He thus has divinized their wretched lives,
Which otherwise would kindle in our hands,
and they recall this folly year by year,
repenting, and curtailing all our plans.
This is a cheerless, beerless place, I think,
and hot is Hell with naught but dust to drink.