Poem: “Advent” by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes
Through the needle’s eye
the rich man came
squeezing through stars of razor light
that pared his body down to thread.
Gravity crushed his heart’s chime
and his breath that breathed out worlds
now flattened as fire between walls,
the impossible slit stripped him
to stitch the human breach.
This poem was first published in What a Light Thing, This Stone (Sow’s Ear Press, 1999) and is used here by permission of the author.
My research interests have to do mainly with art’s theological potential and its ability to, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “disclose” truths that are “closed” by prose. I love how it often surprises, and how it can make connections I would have never thought to make myself.
Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’s poem “Advent” demonstrates these values magnificently. Its topic is the Incarnation. But her mooring point is not John 1 or Luke 1–2 or Philippians 2 or any other scripture text traditionally associated with the doctrine. Instead she draws on the famous aphorism of Jesus that’s recorded in Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
In this Gospel interaction, Jesus is explaining how terribly difficult it is for wealthy people to enter heaven because they tend to cling tightly to their earthly wealth rather than to God; they let it make claims on them, and they trust in its promises, to the neglect of the claims and promises of God. While the needle saying, in context, pertains to man passing from earth to heaven, Rhodes turns it on its head to suggest the movement of God from heaven to earth. A seeming impossibility—infinity becoming finite, God becoming man. But “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). To save us, he would give up all the riches of heaven, assuming the role of a servant and ultimately giving up his very life.
Rhodes uses harsh, uncomfortable words—“squeezing,” “razor,” “pared,” “crushed,” “flattened,” “stripped”—to convey a sense of compression into human flesh. God’s breath, once so powerful and expansive that it brought the universe into existence, is now, in the person of the Son, walled in by a rib cage and dependent on oxygen. His heart pumps actual blood. Thus pared down to thread, he slips through the needle “to stitch the human breach,” to repair what we have torn through our disobedience. Severed from God no longer, we are held together with him by Christ himself.
Musical composition: “As by Fire between Walls” by Joshua Stamper
The evocative imagery of this poem has inspired artists in other media to respond in kind. One of them is composer Joshua Stamper, who, commissioned in 2014 by City Church Philadelphia, wrote a four-and-a-half-minute experimental jazz piece for chamber orchestra titled “As by Fire between Walls.”
It starts with minor chords on the piano, floating around ethereally. Then a violin tremolo kicks in (suggestive of the “razor light”), and other sharp bowing techniques (“par[ing] his body down”). Then soulful, wordless vocals. Then a staccato rhythm played on the mellotron, and percussion. Brass too. It’s a wonderfully wrought piece of music, a soundscape of the Incarnation, inclining the ear back toward Rhodes’s words and the heart to the grand story of scripture.
Painting: Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came by Grace Carol Bomer
Suzanne Rhodes is a friend of visual artist Grace Carol Bomer’s, who has a studio practice in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1993, Bomer was invited by the Asheville Art Museum to exhibit eight of her paintings for a Christmas show. Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, inspired by Rhodes’s “Advent,” is one of those eight.
About it, Bomer says,
The Christ of Christmas is God incarnate, the focal point or fulcrum of history. To show this glorious Incarnation, I chose to paint a piercing V (fulcrum) of light rending cloth (canvas on wood). The torn canvas symbolizes the veil of the temple. . . .
It was my personal challenge to show in painting that Christ is God, Spirit and flesh, in a way that would not be trite and sentimental. The Renaissance nativities are infected with beautiful Platonic realism, suited for Christmas card sentimentality. I feel they do not adequately exalt the “mystery hidden for ages,” the Christ of power and glory. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh, Son of God and Son of Man. Reality is both “abstract” and “realistic.” So too, art must seek to find this mysterious balance in order to proclaim the gospel. Art totally divested of realism, like Abstract Expressionism, becomes meaningless. Art must proclaim creation, fall, and redemption. I would like the poetic nuances in my work to stimulate the imagination to “see” in the abstract painting the spiritual truths that cannot be painted realistically.
In this piece there are suggestions of blood on doorways, symbolizing a Passover fulfilled, as Christ pushes open the door separating God and man.
So this painting integrates the coming down with the at-one-ing that happens at the cross, the physical tear of the canvas alluding simultaneously to the “human breach” of Rhodes’s poem and the tearing of the temple veil, which symbolizes humanity’s reconciliation to God. Birth and death are wrapped up in a single image, as both are key to Christ’s salvation project.
Through the Needle’s Eye is one of Bomer’s early works, but she has a whole series she calls Incarnation, which can be viewed on her website at https://gracecarolbomer.com/section/300298-Abstract-Incarnation.html.
See how a poet’s imagination and craft can unfold the beauty and wonder of a heady doctrine with such concision? In Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines poetry as “a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language” (509). That’s just what Suzanne Underwood Rhodes does in “Advent.” And that intense language of hers has inspired works of musical and visual art that explore even further what it means that the Son of God, the “Rich Man” from heaven, constricted himself for our sakes, becoming impossibly small, taking up residence in a virgin’s dark womb, in humanity’s dark world, so that he could stitch back together our ruptured relationships with the Father and with one another.