As Christmas draws near, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem, “The Windhover.” Hopkins dedicated the poem to Christ, but many believe that the poem is itself, about him, not just dedicated to him. The poem revolves around what my literary mentor, Lee Ryken, called the theme of strength that stoops to conquer. It tells the story of a falcon that is majestic in flight but made even stronger by yielding to the wind. The sonnet ends with the image of a plow made shiny by submitting to its work in the dirt and a dying ember made bright once more by falling to the hearth and breaking open.
In all these pictures, we see the paradox of yielding, submitting and falling as a step toward achieving mastery and fulfilling purpose. This is, of course, an appropriate image for Christ as he lowered himself to take on human form and submitted to death on the cross. And yet, through his humiliation and apparent defeat he conquered so completely as to settle the conflict between God and man forever.
Readers of my series, The Binding of the Blade, will see already some connections. There are “windhovers,” or “king falcons” in Kirthanin as a tribute to Hopkins. Further, the theme of strength that stoops to conquer will be evident in All My Holy Mountain (Book 5) when it is released in the spring.
For now, though, I want to suggest that the fundamental paradox of God’s incalculable strength stooping first to be born in human flesh and then to die a scorned and seemingly ignoble death, is easily lost in our celebrations of Christmas as the holiday par excellence of glitter and bigger, better, newer stuff. This Christmas, I invite you to turn off, not just the T.V., but the Christmas carols on your stereo, the lights on your Christmas tree and even the mechanical reindeer in your front yard forever swiveling its head for all to see, just for a moment, and sit in the quiet darkness of your room, reflecting on what it might have meant to leave heavenly splendor behind for the dingy stable, the first step on a journey that led inexorably forward to a gruesome and bloody death. Then, perhaps, we will have the barest inkling of what it meant for Christ to stoop that he might ultimately conquer.
2 thoughts on “Strength that stoops to conquer”
Good thoughts here. God did indeed stoop down to help us, and really, given our human tendencies…we’d have perished otherwise. We couldn’t reach up and rescue ourselves.
Thanks for sharing this. This is kind of like the “eu-catastrophe” concept that Thomas Shippey talks about regarding Tolkien’s work: the evil that happens that turns out for good.
Here, though, you are expressing not just an evil event that turns good, but rather the purposeful yielding and suffering of the One who is truly good so that we might all benefit.
Your call to focus on the true meaning of Christmas is a wake up call. We as a family do things different than the culture, but you ask us to look even deeper. Thanks!
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