The Ballad of the Cross
My friend Jonathan sent me a present of a poem as an Epiphany gift.
It is named The Ballad of the Cross and is by Theodosia Garrison.
Though she wrote quite a number of poems and a few sacred songs, not a great deal is known about her.
She was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1874 and she married Frederic Faulks but continued to write under her maiden name.
She was on the staff of Life Magazine, resided in New Jersey and was a friend of the American poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox. She died in 1944.
There are hints about her in a number of places but, apart from her published poetry being still in print, not a great deal more.
The poem Jonathan sent me is connected with today’s feast of Epiphany though it is called the Ballad of the Cross. The reason for this becomes evident at the end but, as a spoiler, it makes the connection between with the Crib/Manger of Christ and the Cross of Christ (hence the title). It reminds us that God’s work of Incarnation reaches its fulfilment in the Easter of Christ – his death and resurrection.
Here’s the poem.
Melchior, Gaspar, Balthazar,
Great gifts they bore and meet;
White linen for His body fair
And purple for His feet;
And golden things—the joy of kings—
And myrrh to breathe Him sweet.
It was the shepherd Terish spake,
Oh, poor the gift I bring—
A little cross of broken twigs,
A hind’s gift to a king—
Yet, haply, He may smile to see
And know my offering.
And it was Mary held her Son
Full softly to her breast,
Great gifts and sweet are at Thy feet
And wonders king-possessed;
O little Son, take Thou the one
That pleasures Thee the best.
It was the Christ-Child in her arms
Who turned from gaud and gold,
Who turned from wondrous gifts and great,
From purple woof and fold,
And to His breast the cross He pressed
That scarce His hands could hold.
’Twas king and shepherd went their way—
Great wonder tore their bliss;
’Twas Mary clasped her little Son
Close, close to feel her kiss,
And in His hold the cross lay cold
~Between her heart and His!
Comment on the text
The reference at the beginning of verse 2 to the Shepherd Terish, may be simply a reference to the earlier visit of the Shepherds to the manger The origin of the name may be Persian, which could link it with the Magi who are believed to have come from the East – as in the carol, Three Kings from Persian lands afar. This is my conjecture. There are no notes from Theodosia to help.
The second is about the word ‘gaud’ (gaudy) in verse 4. It means something like a ‘trinket’ or ornament. Maybe jewels which would link into the ‘wondrous’ gifts of the Magi. This is followed by an obscure reference to ‘‘Purple Woof and fold‘. This is her second reference to the colour ‘purple’. (see verse one,line four)
Purple in biblical times and also in the days of the Roman and Byzantine Empires is the colour of Kingship, and Royalty. As a mixture of red and blue, it is an expensive dye and therefore rare. In the beginning of the poem it is one of the ‘great gifts’ from the Magi,‘and purple at his feet’.
This is the garment signifying both king and God. It is also linked with the theme of the poem because after his trial, Jesus was mocked by being dressed in a purple (kingly) robe. It is translated ‘scarlet’ in many Bibles but in the Greek it could be translated ‘purple.’ The important thing here is about the Kingly association between the babe of Bethlehem and his subsequent Crucifixion.
The word ‘woof’ and its link with ‘fold’ are connected with cloth. Woof here is the same as ‘weft’ – threads in a garment running crosswise as the warp runs lengthwise.
What Theodosia is saying is that though these costly gifts and fine garments are for a King and a God, the baby Jesus, turning away from them, indicates a very different destiny and throne.
The gift of twigs given by the Shepherd, became the Cross Jesus held in his tiny hand and pressed to him. This simple, inexpensive gift reminds of the carol,In the bleak Midwinter; ‘What can I give him, poor as I am’. The Shepherd’s gift is returned to us by Jesus as the true gift God gives to us. For now, as the Magi and the shepherd leave, the cross ‘lay cold’ until its time.
The Wood of the Manger and of the Cross are brought together as instruments of our salvation.