“Christ’s Nativity” by Henry Vaughan

Awake, glad heart! get up and sing! 
It is the birth-day of thy King. 
Awake! awake! 
The Sun doth shake 
Light from his locks, and all the way 
Breathing perfumes, doth spice the day. 

Awake, awake! hark how th’ wood rings; 
Winds whisper, and the busy springs 
A concert make; 
Awake! awake! 
Man is their high-priest, and should rise 
To offer up the sacrifice. 

I would I were some bird, or star, 
Flutt’ring in woods, or lifted far 
Above this inn 
And road of sin! 
Then either star or bird should be 
Shining or singing still to thee. 

I would I had in my best part 
Fit rooms for thee! or that my heart 
Were so clean as 
Thy manger was! 
But I am all filth, and obscene; 
Yet, if thou wilt, thou canst make clean. 

Sweet Jesu! will then. Let no more 
This leper haunt and soil thy door! 
Cure him, ease him, 
O release him! 
And let once more, by mystic birth, 
The Lord of life be born in earth.

Awake, awake!

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) was a Welsh metaphysical poet deeply indebted to the English poet, George Herbert (1593-1633). Like Herbert, his best poetry is devotional and bears the mark of the communion with the Divine. Here, in five stanzas Vaughan reflects on the double entendre of the image of birth in the Christian faith. Significantly, Vaughan commands his heart seven times to “awake” in this poem, clueing the reader in that while Christmas morning is the foregrounded object, the main focus is the dreary heart of the poet that needs to be startled out of its slumber.

In the first stanza, Vaughan addresses his own sleepy heart to awake to celebrate Christmas morning. The Sun doth shake / Light from his locks plays into the imagery of the author being woken from bed by the morning light. Yet, the capital “S” in “Sun” and the personal pronoun “his locks” reveals that the “Sun” is, in reality, the “Son,” Jesus Christ, whose birth was prophesied to bring light amidst the gloom of deep darkness (Isa 9:2). The second stanza emphasizes how all of Creation is in a concert of praise; the poet must lumber out of bed, out of his spiritual lethargy, and join in the worship.

The next two stanzas contain the desires of the poet (“I would” = “I wish”). He wishes he were like a bird or star who shine and sing in praise, like the rest of Creation (stanza two) of the King. Vaughan then cleverly plays with the images in the story of Christ being born in a manger because there is no room for them at the inn (Luke 2:7). In both stanzas, Vaughan compares his heart to the inn which has no room for the newborn Jesus. The manger, a place of the typical filth of animals, is a place of enviable purity compared to the inn (“all filth and obscene”) of Vaughan’s heart. Yet, he holds out the hope of the leper from Matthew 8:2, “Yet, if thou wilt, thou canst make clean.”

In Matthew’s account, the leper kneels before Jesus and confesses his faith in Jesus’ ability to heal and asks for cleansing, “if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus, alarmingly and wonderfully, reaches out and touches an untouchable: “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed,” (Matt 8:3). This is Vaughan’s great hope in his final stanza. He lays hold of the “I will” of Jesus like the hem of His robe and pleads: “Sweet Jesu! will then” And then flow the most powerful lines of the poem: Let no more / This leper haunt and soil thy door! / Cure him, ease him, / O release him! Read those lines out loud. You can feel the urgency of the request as the words tumble out in staccato fashion.

And then, with a final flourish, Vaughan weaves together all of the images of the poem into the final two lines: And let once more, by mystic birth, / The Lord of life be born in earth. Christmas morning isn’t limited to a manger in Bethlehem. Through the new birth (“mystic birth”), Christ can be “formed in you” today (Gal 4:19). This is Vaughan’s only hope for his heart to be awakened from its darkness, to be cleansed of its filth and sin: Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, the Sun of Righteousness; the Great Physician who heals our sick hearts; the Son of God born to bring new birth; the Deliverer come to save us from our sins.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

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