THE LAND OF UNLIKENESS: W. H. AUDEN'S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

Photo by Les routes sans fin(s) on Unsplash

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

W.H. Auden  (1907-1973)

“He is the Way,” Hymn #463/464 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, is the concluding section of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. The poem was written between 1941 and 1942 as a libretto for an unfinished composition by Benjamin Britten. 

At the risk of oversimplification, the Christmas Oratorio can be described as Auden’s extended meditation on the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and its meaning for people in the modern world. 

In the penultimate section of the Oratorio, Auden turns his attention to the time immediately following the Christmas season, what we in the Episcopal Church call the season of Epiphany and what in the Roman Catholic Church is called “Ordinary Time.” In Epiphany, we are in the meantime between Christmas, the season of the incarnation and Lent, the season of the cross.    

Auden begins his reflections on the time between Christmas and Lent with these words:

Well, so that is that. 
Now we must dismantle the tree, 
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes….

We know what that is like. For those of us who observe the seasons of the church calendar, the act of taking down the decorations, as the twelve days of Christmas ends and Epiphany begins, is a physical, visual, and emotional reminder that we are entering a different space and time from where we have been. Here Auden, looking back to the incarnation of Jesus at Christmastime, suggests that the reality and life-changing implications of the incarnation of God in Jesus may be too much for us to grasp, so we remain unchanged, living life as we have before, remaining “His disobedient servant.”  Auden writes: 

…Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, 
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, 
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. 
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, 
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off….

The theme of the disobedient servant is picked up again near the end of this long poem in the section that comprises the lyrics of Hymns 463 and 464.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and hav
e unique adventures.

Auden borrowed the phrase “land of Unlikeness” from St. Augustine, who describes the years before he fully embraced the Christian faith as years lived in a “land of Unlikeness”: “I realized I was far away from Thee in a land of Unlikeness” (Confessions, Book 7, Chapter 10).

This “land of Unlikeness” was equated in later monastic literature and scholarship with the “far country” to which the prodigal son journeyed: “the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” (Luke 15:3). Auden understands that the journey of faith aiming to find and follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life requires us to journey through this land as we are transformed from disobedient servant to obedient disciple and from untruth to truth. The Way that leads to Jesus takes us on this journey.

Reflecting on Auden’s poem, in light of my reading of the theologian, Karl Barth, I could not help but think of the incarnation itself as the story of God’s journey into a far country for our sakes. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In the second chapter of Philippians, St. Paul cites an early Christian hymn to urge his fellow Christians to model their behavior on Jesus Christ,

            who, though he was in the form of God, 
            did not regard equality with God
            as something to be exploited, 
            but emptied himself, 
            taking the form of a slave, 
            being born in human likeness. 
            And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross  
            Therefore God also highly exalted him… (Phil. 2:5-9).

This is the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  God, in Christ, took on human flesh.  God, in other words, gave up the authority that goes along with being God  and took on the form of a servant. God, then, in Jesus Christ, went on a journey from the realm of eternity into the realm of human existence–that is, our world.  

This journey leads from eternity to time, from human birth to human death, from incarnation to death on the cross.  It ends with Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation back in eternity once again. 

In Volume 4:1 of the Church Dogmatics — perhaps the greatest Christian systematic theological contribution of the 20thcentury — Karl Barth reads the story of the prodigal son in light of this passage from Philippians. He reads this story Christologically, that is, he reads the story of the prodigal son as a metaphor for the journey of Jesus from the realm of pre-existent Godhead to earthly, fleshly, incarnation. Jesus, thus, in a manner similar to that of the prodigal son, goes off into a “far country.” 

Where the prodigal son soon after leaving his father got lost in the “land of Unlikeness,” giving himself over to “reckless living,” Jesus, living a real and full human life in our world, the “far country,” remained obedient to his Father.  And where we, in Auden’s words, “have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, Jesus “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8) 

All this Jesus did “for us and for our salvation.”

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  “Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness….Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety….Love Him in the World of the Flesh.”

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