The great yearning

This Sunday poem may not strike you immediately as a poem for Advent, but as you read it, I think you’ll see why I chose it.  It’s a favorite poem of mine by one of my favorite writers, Anthony Esolen. I do hope that you savor and relish it as much as I do upon reading it.  Let’s never go back to Egypt, but continue to yearn with a great yearning.

When Israel Went Out of Egypt

When Israel went out of Egypt

Behind the spattered doorposts I recall
My elders muttering prayers of terror when
Night and the angel of destruction fell
On the firstborn of Egypt; heard the cry
Of the heart-broken women like sea-birds
Calling over the waste; saw the black surge
Smash the great army that pursued us still,
As a child smashes sticks; saw, looking back,
Strange residue upon the settling sea,
Robes and plumes, white faces, fingers at the reins,
The upturned necks of horses lodged in mud
And broken chariot wheels; stood at the mountain
When thunder made my people hide their eyes
And the lone prophet sojourned to the height
To bring us back the great gift of the Law;
Wavered a moment when the earth beneath
Cracked, and devoured the rebels whole; bent double
To scramble up the grains of what-is-this,
Seethed them and baked the paste into sweet wafers;
Swung the good sword at the Amalekite,
Well while the prophet held his old arms high,
But when they fell, our favor fell with them.
I have known all these things and more, far more;
Yet sometimes when the evening sun’s at rest
On the long sands behind, there comes again
A hint of something subtle on the air,
A slither of a scent, or festal song;
Come to me only, though a guilty glance
Now and again from one of my old friends
Betrays a similar thought: for there are times,
God help us, there are times when we might trade
The holy Torah and the heaven-dropped food
And all the fiery wonders of the desert,
The promise of a land we have not seen,
For wheat in ear upon the river’s mud,
A pot of lamb stew rich in leeks and onions,
And brown girls wearing no more than a sash
Smiting the tambourine upon the hip;
For slavery too had something for the slave.
Then the sun sets; we huddle in our tents,
We bow, we pray; and the great yearning falls
Like dew upon the Sabbath eve: to hold
Close to our hearts that choice that is not ours,
That He would dwell among us, Israel,
Bound among all the nations to be free.

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