“My Roman Catholic religion and my poems are the most important things in my life,” said Jennings, whose craft and faith intertwine via biblical places, religious figures, and Christian metaphors and themes in a lifetime of poems. In Moments of Grace, references to Gethsemane, Jerusalem, Paradise, and Eden crop up in the final few lines of poems whose titles and treatment are otherwise secular, as does the sun as metaphor for a Communion wafer. To profess love’s willingness to overcome adversity, another poem draws on biblical phrasing—“seven times seven”—used in scripture to signal God’s works. Some poems, including “A Beseeching,” move beyond reference and metaphor to formal prayer: They acknowledge the reign of the Lord or the Virgin and then request divine help.
Christian themes are most explicit in “Christmas Suite in Five Movements,” the closing work that recounts Christ’s birth. Vacillating between images of a crying, needy babe and an adult Christ bearing crucifixion scars, Jennings’s version of Christmas emphasizes vulnerability. It also expresses a mutual need of humans for Christ and Christ for humans.
. . . This God fears the night, A child so terrified he asks for us. God is the cry we thought came from our own Perpetual sense of loss. Can God be frightened to be so alone? Does that child dream the cross?
As portrayed by Jennings, the Christ child is not the pacific infant of traditional holiday fare; he is very noisy, very fearful, and very human. Similarly, when the story jumps in time from the newborn to the mature Christ, it highlights emotional and physical discomforts—a disturbing dream, exhaustion, blindness from the sun, as well as a great deal of dust, heat, poverty, and cold. Why? The raw humanity underscores what Jennings calls the “terrible truth” of Christ’s suffering. Graphically portrayed, Christ’s suffering makes redemption real for people bearing their own burdens, including the burdens of unfulfilled love, misspoken words, and ebbing powers depicted in Moments of Grace.
Jennings’s Christmas suite closes without fanfare, focusing on the “tiny flesh/ And flickering spirit” of the Christ child. In a mixture of the Lord’s Prayer, the sacrament of Communion, and a sense of Christianity enduring, the closing lines of the collection offer quiet but potent hope: “Give us this daily Bread, this little Host.”