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A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 1 of 4)

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

Garrett turns to G.K. Chesterton’s poem A Christmas Song for Three Guilds, which he believes, suggests a much more egalitarian idea of the Kingdom of God than we are likely to picture. (Part 1 of 4)

What does Advent mean to us, on a personal level? How does this brief season, where we prepare for the coming of Jesus, relate to how we live our lives for the rest of the year? Before the dawn of Advent proper, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, where we recognize the sovereignty of Jesus in our lives, in preparation for his coming as the newborn king. But many find this idea of Jesus as ‘King’ problematic – in a democratic era, kingship can easily be seen as something oppressive and tyrannical. Therefore in this Advent season, I’d like to turn to G.K. Chesterton’s poem A Christmas Song for Three Guilds, which I believe suggests a much more egalitarian idea of the Kingdom of God than we are likely to picture.

The poem (or ‘song’) consists of 4 verses, with each of the three guilds – the Carpenters, the Shoemakers, and the Painters – being allocated a verse for themselves before God addresses them all in the final one (aptly titled “All Together”). Thus, I intend to make this into a 4-part series, allowing me time to give each verse its due attention. I’m going to do something a bit unusual and start with the last verse, as I feel that it will help put the first three verses in context. This is important as Chesterton uses some rather violent imagery that might be awkward to explain without first understanding where he’s coming from.

So before we start, what exactly is a ‘guild’? In medieval times, a guild was something like a worker’s union for a particular profession. If you were a baker, for example, the town’s baker’s guild would support you as long as you had the necessary qualifications and certifications to be a baker. These guilds operated with the express permission of the king, granting them a sense of legitimacy as a force for the welfare of its members. Thus, each profession would feel that it had some form of representation within the kingdom.

I’d like to suggest that Chesterton envisions the Kingdom of God as having something along the lines of this guild model. The members of each guild are presented as each being addressed by the guild leader, in this case, their Patron Saint (Saint Joseph for the Carpenters, Saint Crispin for the Shoemakers, and Saint Luke for the Painters). I think that’s quite a nice image – as you can probably tell, we’re big fans of the Saints here at Christ Centered Conversations. Each Saint takes some time to encourage a particular virtue in their charges, but also tells them to be ready to go on the attack if a mysterious ‘Charter’ is challenged. But just what is this Charter? That’s what we’re about to find out.

The poem begins thusly:

‘Almighty God to all mankind on Christmas Day said He: “I rent you from the old red hills and, rending, made you free.’

Quite a nice rhyming effect, isn’t it? The whole poem consists of such pairs of rhyming sentences. It sets a rhythm that is easy to follow, and works well whether it is read as normal speech, such as in here, or as a challenge or command, as we shall see later.

The second line also places emphasis on the act of ‘rending’ – a violent action that invokes images of something being torn away. But yet we are told that this address takes place on ‘Christmas Day’ and that we are being rent from ‘the old red hills’. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m thinking that the old red hills refer to a rather… nasty place. A hot, reddish place. I believe, then, that these lines refer to Jesus’ act of salvation. And we know of course, that Jesus accomplishes this salvation through non-violent means. Thus, I believe that it’s safe to read any violent metaphors Chesterton uses in the light of spiritual warfare as opposed to physical ones. This will make more sense as we learn more about the ‘Charter’ in the following lines.

‘There was charter, there was challenge; in a blast of breath I gave; You can be all things other; you cannot be a slave’

Now we’re getting somewhere! A charter refers to a document that defines the rights and privileges of a group or organization. It’s probably safe to say that this refers to all of mankind in this context. The mention of a ‘blast of breath’ from God is significant; the Hebrew word ruachmeans breath in English, but also carries the connotation of ‘spirit’ or ‘life’. In short, Jesus came to breathe life into us – “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This is why we can be all things but a ‘slave’ – to choose to still live as a slave to our sins is to reject the gift that Jesus offers. (The best Christmas gift of all, as Greg puts it ;))

‘You shall be tired and tolerant of fancies as they fade, But if men doubt the Charter, ye shall call on the Crusade- Trumpet and torch and catapult, cannon and bow and blade, Because it was My challenge to all the things I made.’

I put these last four lines together as I feel they form a complete whole. As we can see, the second line has a rather abruptly violent turn – from being ‘tired and tolerant’ to calling ‘on the Crusade’. The last three lines of each verse consists of just such an abrupt turn to the violent, which is why I feel it is important to place this poem in the context of spiritual warfare. Again, however, we see the message that God challenges us to treasure our lives and time. God’s Charter is that we must be able to live our lives to the fullest, no matter what our profession may be, and to inspire others not to fall into despair or sloth, wasting the gifts that they have been given. The work of the Christian is thus to bring the Gospel - the Good News - to all around us.

In the days to come, we shall turn back to the first 3 verses of the poem, in order to examine the practical wisdom each Saint imparts to those under their patronage, and how we can apply it to our own lives. But in the meanwhile, let’s take this Advent season to reflect on how we can live our lives to the fullest, be it in our work, our families, or even our parish communities. God bless!

© 2017 Christ Centered Convo/Garrett Christopher Ng

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