Crashaw’s “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds” celebrates several of the primary paradoxes and transformations of Christian faith: the light shining in the midst of the world’s darkness, the infinitely powerful God enfleshed as a vulnerable infant, the self-giving of love overcoming all worldly power—including the power of death. With its references to shepherds and their lives, the hymn invokes the classical tradition of pastoral, with its celebration of the power of poetry to heal the breach between man and nature, and to offer consolation in the face of mortality. Yet Crashaw transforms the natural tradition of classical pastoral to a form of revelation of Christian transcendence: the vagaries of nature and mortal time are changed by the timelessness, fullness, and deathlessness of a divine love that enters time, nature, and human understanding to release them forever from the grip of loss, confusion, and sorrow. The shepherds excitedly celebrate what they have seen, and yet the visual images are scarcely visible to “mortal sight”; with so much stress on vision, and so little provided in the way of sensory visual detail, the poem testifies to revelation, the power of God’s presence to awaken and redeem the human imagination.
Crashaw’s poetry frequently sensualizes God’s love for humanity and humanity’s longing for God in images of the nourishing power of Christ’s wounds and blood and, reciprocally, in the milk of the Virgin Mary, the tears of Mary Magdalene, and the ecstatic wounds of Saint Teresa. In the hymn, when Crashaw discreetly yet startlingly evokes the sensual pleasure, security, and nourishment that the holy infant enjoys in his mother’s protective nursing embrace, he renders in the most intimate terms possible the paradox of the Incarnation: Christ’s humanity and vulnerability, and the mutual and fully enfleshed nurturance that is the gift of faith.