There have been endless beautiful Christmas poems and hymns written over the centuries that chronicle the event of Christ’s birth, many of which are widely popular and known throughout the world. One much lesser known Christmas poem that you may not be familiar with, however, is the poem titled, “A Christmas Hymn,” written by the late American poet, Richard Wilbur, and published in 1961. Wilbur’s poetry was marked by his emphasis on the importance of the things of this world in revealing and making known the realities of another world, a world that is immaterial but in no way less real. His poetry often concerned itself with the relationship between these two worlds. It’s no wonder, then, that he penned a poem about the event of Christ’s birth, as there is no event in human history that better reveals the relationship between the created world and the divine than the Incarnation.

“A Christmas Hymn” by Richard Wilbur

And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. (Luke 19:39-40)

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

The poem begins with an epigraph from Luke’s account of Palm Sunday and borrows an image from the Gospel of stones crying out to use as a refrain throughout the poem. In the Gospel passage, the Pharisees are upset with the crowds for crying out in praise of Jesus as he triumphantly enters the city of Jerusalem, and they ask Jesus to rebuke the crowds. However, Jesus responds by confirming that He, the King of Kings and Creator of the universe, is worthy of all praise and that even if the crowds ceased to praise Him, the very stones of the earth would cry out in praise of Him. 

Wilbur uses this image from Palm Sunday throughout his poem about Christmas because it so perfectly reveals the effect of the Incarnation, through which God reconciled not just mankind to Himself, but the whole world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Even the rocks will know and praise their Creator, who was born amongst them as a helpless baby. Throughout the poem, Wilbur uses other images of the things of this world bearing witness to the events of Christ’s life and magnifying His praise, such as the stars on the night of His birth, the palm branches on the day of His entry into Jerusalem, and the clouds on the afternoon of His death. These images strikingly reveal the contrast between the things of this world, which “harbor heaven,” “become a shrine,” and “pave his kingdom come,” and the “stony hearts of men,” which instead shed His blood and refuse His love. 

The poem ultimately reaffirms the words of Christ in Luke’s Gospel. Despite our failure to praise Him, our rejection of Him, our refusal of His love, and even our putting of Him to death, Christ is triumphant in reconciling the world to Himself and the very things of the world will praise Him, even if mankind will not. How much more ought we to praise Him, however, if even the stones of the earth are capable of praising Him? How much more ought we, then, to sing His praises and serve Him, who has stooped so low and so humbled Himself in order to bring about our reconciliation with God?