Monday, January 2, 2017

Epiphany Vision

The Last Message, William Hatherell
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 5234)
As the tragic year of the Somme and Verdun was drawing to a close, British soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary, “The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden” (22 December 1916). 

British V.A.D. nurse Mary-Adair Macdonald knew first-hand of the physical and emotional burdens born by the wounded of the war and those who cared for them. Her poem “Epiphany Vision” reimagines the Bethlehem stable as a hospital ward, while the kings who brought gifts to the Christ child are re-seen as the broken men of the war.

Epiphany Vision (In the Ward)

This is the night of a Star.
Dusk grow window and wall;
A Cross unseen floats red o’er the wrack of war;
Silences fall
In the house where the wounded are.
Hospital ward

“Good-night to all!”
Then I pause awhile by the open door, and see
Their patient faces, pale through the blue smoke-rings,
On the night of Epiphany….
But who are these, who are changed utterly,
Wearing a look of Kings?

Brothers, whence do ye come?
Royal and still, what Star have ye looked upon?
--“From hill and valley, from many a city home
We came, we endured till the last of strength was gone,
Over the narrow sea.
But what of a Star? We have only fought for home
And babes on the mother’s knee.”
(Their silence saith.)

—Brothers, what do ye bring
To the Christ Whom Kings adored? —“We cannot tell.
We might have fashioned once some simple thing;
Once we were swift, who now are very slow;
We were skilled of hand, who bear the splint and the sling.
We gave no thought to Pain, in the year ago,
Who since have passed through Hell.
But what should we bring Him now—we, derelicts nigh past mending?’
(Frankincense, myrrh and gold;
Winds His choristers, worlds about His knee….
Hath He room at all in His awful Treasury
For the gifts our Kings unfold
That can ne’er be told?)

This is the night of a Star.
German Christmas card
This is the long road’s ending.
They are sleeping now; they have brought their warrior best
To the Lord their God Who made them;
And lo! He hath repaid them
With rest.—
This is the night of a Star.
The laugh that rings through torment, the ready jest,
Valor and youth, lost hope, and a myriad dreams
Splendidly given—
He hath taken up to the inmost heart of Heaven.
And now—while the night grows cold, and the ward-fire gleams—
You may guess the tender Smile as He walketh hidden
In the place where His Wise Ones are.
            --Mary-Adair Macdonald

Like the wise men from the East, the wounded soldiers have traveled far.  They have left the comforts of their homes to pursue a cause they thought noble. And marked by exhaustion, they too have spent long hours patiently observing the night sky, theirs lit by the flares of star shells bursting overhead. 

What can the wounded, these “derelicts nigh past mending” bring as gifts? Having lost their youth, speed, and skill to the blast of shells, the whine of machine gun fire, and the horrors found in No Man’s Land, what remains for these men to offer? They have sacrificed not only their dreams, but their very wholeness, all “splendidly given,” all forever gone. 

Yet for a moment as worlds slip and smoke rises as incense, this Epiphany vision reassures that all is not lost, but rather has been tenderly gathered by the Holy One to whom the gift was made. The wounded men’s hopes are preserved in “the inmost heart of Heaven,” and Christ walks hidden amongst their beds, bestowing tender smiles and blessings upon “His Wise Ones.” 

Detail of The Scottish Women's Hospital, by Nora-Neilson Gray
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3090)
As the poem proclaims, this is the night of the Star, and the men themselves outshine the stars in laughter that “rings through torment,” in the ready jests that conceal their pain, and in the valor with which they meet their ruin. 

Little is known of Mary-Adair Macdonald; she left her home in Lyndhurst, Hampshire to join the V.A.D. in September of 1915 and served until May of 1918 at Christchurch Red Cross Hospital, Hill House Hospital (Petersfield), and Burcote House Hospital (Abingdon). A small pamphlet of her poems was reprinted from the pages of the Spectator and dedicated to the nurses of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Empire who have “nourished the wounded and soothed many a dying soldier.” Her poems express a deep faith and a reverence for the suffering of the men in her care, while she describes the nurses of the First World War as “handmaids of your pain.

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