The Feast of Epiphany celebrates the happy arrival of the Magi into Bethlehem bringing gifts to the newborn Christ. This date for Blessed John Henry Newman, however, was filled with sadness, for Newman’s beloved sister, Mary, on the 5th of January 1828, died suddenly at age 19. In this moving poem, Epiphany-Eve: A Birthday Offering, Newman majestically weaves together these two contrasting events, the glad feast and his sister’s devastating death, for Newman loved Mary dearly; she was particularly sweet and cheerful, even when she knew her death was imminent. The pain of her death saddened Newman into his old age. The spiritual effects were great, however. It caused Newman to be keenly aware of the transitory nature of life on earth, and made him more attuned to the “invisible” world all around. It also strengthened his trust in God’s providence. These things would find their way into his poetry. This poem was written on the second anniversary of Mary’s death. The first stanza lists fond things he wishes to bring his dear sister on this “birthday,” that is, her birth into eternal life.
BIRTHDAY gifts, with the early year,
Lo! we bring thee, Mary dear!
Prayer and praise upon thy death
Twined together in a wreath,
Grief and gladness, such as may
Suit a solemn holiday.
Christmas snow, for maiden’s bloom
Blanched in winter’s sudden tomb;
Christmas berries, His red token
Who that grave’s stern seal hath broken;
These for thee the faithful heart,
Due mementos, sets apart.
The second stanza makes reference to the evening of Mary’s death, as Newman weaves into this verse-memory the actual events celebrated on Epiphany, contrasting the family’s sorrow with the glad gifts brought by the wise men.
‘Twas a fast, that Eve of sorrow,
Herald veil’d of glorious morrow.
Speechless we sat; and watch’d, to know
How it would be; but time moved slow,
Along that day of sacred woe.
Then came the Feast, and we were told
Bravely of our best to bring,
Myrrh, and frankincense, and gold,
As our tribute to our King.
In this next uplifting stanza, Newman happily addresses Mary directly, imagining all the glories of heaven she’s experiencing, like the Angels and their fanning wings and of course, the “ALL-loving,” that is, God!
Dearest, gentlest, purest, best!
Deep is thy mysterious rest,
Now the solemn hours are over
And the Angels round thee hover,
With the fanning of their wings
Keeping time to one who sings
Of high themes consolatory,
Of the All-loving and His glory,
Of the age that has no ending,
Of the day of thy ascending
From those shades of paradise
To the bright supernal skies.
In the next two stanzas, Newman, still addressing Mary, illustrates his intense interest in the invisible world in which she is dwelling; in a lovely way, he unites the path that Christ and his sister both traveled, that is, the path to death. Newman also reminds us that life and death are a continuum, and the one naturally leads to the other. Spirit and life cannot be severed.
Thinkest of us, dearest, ever?
Ah! so be it nought can sever
Spirit and life, the past and present,
Still we yield thee musings pleasant.
—God above, and we below;—
So thought ranges, to and fro.
He, in sooth, by tutorings mild,
From the rude clay shaped His child,
Fiery trial, anguish chill,
Served not here His secret will;
But His voice was low and tender,
And so true was thy surrender,
That the work in haste was done,
Grace and nature blent in one.—
Harmless thus, and not unmeet,
To kiss the dear prints of thy feet,
Tracing thus the narrow road
All must tread, and Christ has trod.
Newman sees the meaning of Mary’s death as drawing those she left behind into that invisible world, likening it to the star which guided the magi. This becomes clear in the following stanza, where he again unites the two events, Epiphany and Mary’s death.
Loveliest, meekest, blithest, kindest!
Lead! we seek the home thou findest!
Though thy name to us most dear,
Go! we would not have thee here.
Lead, a guiding beacon bright
To travellers on the Eve of Light.
Welcome aye thy Star before us,
Bring it grief or gladness o’er us;—
Newman ends the poem by admitting that thoughts of Mary still sadden him but also seem to him as “sparks” sent from her, which bring hope to his weary heart. The final stanza beautifully offers this poem as a monument to her. Those who take time to read this poem may feel Newman’s loss of his beloved sister, and think of their own losses. But they, too, may perceive the “sparks” sent from beyond the grave to ‘lighten weary hearts’ here on earth.
Keen regret and tearful yearning,
Whiles unfelt, and whiles returning;—
Or more gracious thoughts abiding,
Or, when day-light blessings fail,
Transport fresh as spice-fraught gale,
Sparks from thee, which oft have lighted
Weary heart and hope benighted.
I this monument would raise,
Distant from the public gaze.
Few will see it;—few e’er knew thee;
But their beating hearts pursue thee,—
And their eyes fond thoughts betoken,
Though thy name be seldom spoken.
Pass on, stranger, and despise it!
These will read, and these will prize it.
(Epiphany-Eve: A Birthday Offering, Oxford. January 5, 1830)