Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent 1916

British Christmas card, 1918

Christmas has always been a time for dreams, whether of angelic hosts, sugar plums, or a softly drifting snow. But at Christmas, what hopes fill the dreams of soldiers at war, and what are the deepest longings of their loved ones who wait?  

By December of 1916, the Great War was entering its third year, and soldiers and civilians alike were reeling after the losses at Verdun and the Somme (the battles' casualties exceeded two million men). In her poem “Advent, 1916,” Eva Dobell, a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse (VAD), dreams not of an infant in the manger, but of Christ’s return to the “grim trenches” and “shell-seared plain” of the First World War.

Advent, 1916
 Christ of the Trenches, Neuve Chapelle postcard
I dreamt last night Christ came to earth again
To bless His own. My soul from place to place
On her dream-quest, sped, seeking for His face
Through temple and town and lovely land, in vain.
Then came I to a place where death and pain
Had made of God's sweet world a waste forlorn,
With shattered trees and meadows gashed and torn,
Where the grim trenches scarred the shell-seared plain.

And through that Golgotha of blood and clay,
Where watchers cursed the sick dawn, heavy-eyed,
There (in my dream) Christ passed upon His way,
Where His cross marks their nameless graves who died
Slain for the world's salvation, where all day
For others' sake strong men are crucified.

                        --Eva Dobell

The poet dreams not of peace, but of presence. There appears the dull realization that the war will drag on and that men will continue to be sacrificed, “all day / For others’ sake.” The waste is appalling, and even the dawn is sickened and pale.  

Yet in the midst of death and suffering, Christ comes again to walk through meadows “gashed and torn.” He lingers and passes crosses that mark the nameless dead as His own. The humble carpenter who died a bloody death at Golgotha has not forgotten the strong men who now lie row upon row in the heavy clay, and He comes to bless them. The promise He made to his ragged band of disciples on a mountain in Galilee holds true from Gallipoli to Galacia, from Mametz to the Marne: “and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

Dobell donated a portion of the sales proceeds of her volume of poetry A Bunch of Cotswold Grasses to St. Martin’s Gloucestershire Red Cross Hospital for Disabled Soldiers. 

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