For the Time Being
W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 2013 edition
I have been wanting to do something different for Advent and Christmas for several years now. Our 2012 reworking of our congregation's Lenten and Holy Week observances have proven to be meaningful and to increase participation in Holy Week services by the members of the congregation. I didn't expect this historic piece to transform Advent observances, but I did hope that Auden's poetry might stir some thoughts in me and stir they did.
Auden wrote this oratorio before he was fully accomplished in idiomatic English. It shows awkwardness in a few places, but the thing that impressed me the most was the sheer density of the language. I tried reading it silently, but it was just too confounding to even follow the flow of the words without the sounds and rhythm of reading out loud. I worked my way slowly through the oratorio, trying to imagine the various characters and how the piece might be stages, though stage productions of the work are virtually unheard of.
Striking and even stunning is the monologue (with chorus) of Simeon. The language is so dense and complex that I found myself seeking someone to read the piece to that together we might unpack some of its meaning. Similarly dense is the explanation of the killing of the innocents and the flight to Egypt.
All in all, it is a masterful blending of the contemporary and the ancient in a retelling of the Christmas narrative that takes a look at the feelings of the participants.
Frankly, I can't imagine staging the play. I can't even imagine what it would be like to listen to it all in one sitting. I suspect that it is just too dense, too rich and too wordy to carry its meaning in such a setting. As an epic poem, however, it is worthy of a careful read. In fact, it left me thinking that one day I will need to read it again just to see what I missed on the first trip through.