If you’re coming here after reading Part 1, welcome back! If not, do be aware that this is Part 2 of four-part series where I’ll be analysing G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds. We’re taking it one stanza at a time, and the first part does establish some very important context for us while reading this poem. So I’d highly recommend giving it a read-through to avoid any confusion. Part 2 will still be here when you’re done!
In Part 1, we talked about the birth of Jesus being a challenge to us to lead inspiring Christian lives, no matter where we are in life or what profession we are in. In this next part, we will be examining this through the life of St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, and whom we know of course, Jesus inherited his first profession from. So who better to look to when asking how we can live authentic Christian lives in the secular world? Without further ado, let’s dive into the poem, and let St. Joseph teach us a thing or two about the virtue of Kindness.
‘St. Joseph to the Carpenters said on a Christmas Day:
“The master shall have patience and the prentice shall obey;’
I love these two lines because they’re so practical and easy to remember. Not only are they a rhyming couplet, but both lines have alliteration like ‘Carpenters’ and ‘Christmas’, and ‘patience’ and ‘prentice’, which makes this line so easy to recall. And it bears an important lesson as well: to treat those under us with patience and kindness if we need to teach them, and to listen respectfully and attentively if we need to be taught. Whatever the case, if we find ourselves in any such situation, it may be worth pasting these lines somewhere, or committing them to memory. Or am I the only weirdo who uses poetry to center myself in Christ? Surely not?
‘And your word unto your women shall be nowise hard or wild:
For the sake of me, your master, who have worshipped Wife and Child.’
It’s beautiful that Chesterton uses St. Joseph to demonstrate the virtue of Kindness as we know from the Gospels that this was very much like him. Though he was a poor man and had to undergo so many hardships to keep Mary and Jesus safe, not a single complaint of his is recorded. In fact, not a single word of his is recorded in the Gospels. Joseph simply did what he needed to do in order to provide for his family, and we can be sure that he never took it out on them either.
I should also mention that the use of ‘worship’ here is not used in the commonly understood meaning of ‘reverence to God’. Rather, it means to show the utmost respect, but human respect. In days past, people like mayors and judges could be called ‘Your Worship’, much like today they are called ‘Your Honor’. The meanings of words change over time.
‘But softly you shall frame the fence, and softly carve the door,
And softly plane the table—as to spread it for the poor,
And all your thoughts be soft and white as the wood of the white tree.’
I put these three lines together as they touch on the same theme of ‘softness’. The phrasing here is almost comical – noisy is the carpenter’s work, and imagining them going about trying to hammer and saw and carve as quietly as possible is more than a little humorous. But I think softness here again draws a bridge to the idea of gentleness, as reference to the fact that St. Joseph tells them to plane the table ‘as to spread it for the poor’. When I was a little boy, Christmas was magical to me because it seemed that for one moment, all family feuds and assorted nonsense would stop for that one day, and everyone could just sit down and chat and be family. ‘Soft and white as the wood of the white tree’ indeed.
‘But if they tear the Charter, Jet the tocsin speak for me!
Let the wooden sign above your shop be prouder to be scarred
Than the lion-shield of Lancelot that hung at Joyous Garde.”’
I’ve spoken in Part 1 about the ‘Charter’ as used in this poem, and how it basically amounts to God’s challenge to defend the beauty of life itself against more nihilistic and defeatist philosophies.
What’s interesting here is that this first verse really does describe this struggle in defensive terms. ‘Tocsin’ is another word for an alarm, as in a call to arms. (No idea what ‘Jet’ means here though. ‘Let’ would make a lot more sense in context, but it’s spelt this way in every version I’ve come across. If you know, then do drop us a line on social media to let us know!). Joyous Garde is the stronghold of Sir Lancelot in the Arthurian legend, and it famously comes under siege when Lancelot’s affair with Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, becomes known. Thus, the humble little Carpenter’s Shop, should it stand for gentle, God-given creative forces, should be prouder of resisting destructive ways of thinking than Lancelot’s mighty fortress, as it stands for a worthier cause.
I hope you continue to enjoy these poetical analyses as we move closer and closer to Christmas. I also hope that by going through this verse with me, we can find ways to exercise the virtue of kindness in our lives, after St. Joseph’s example. God bless, and see you for part 3!
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng