Author: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet, though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.
Genre: Poetry, theodicy.
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850)—the British spelling hyphenates both—is titled as one poem with two parts, and 55 small sections. It has also been published as two separate poems. Quite regardless of its visionary settings, the poem take a mostly introspective stance typical of Browning’s poetry.
Though Browning is often philosophical, this is one of his most overtly Christian poems, and some attribute this to the influence of his recent marriage to Elizabeth Barrett. She told a correspondent concerning this poem, “Certainly the poem does not represent his own permanent state of mind, which was what I meant when I told you it was ‘dramatic.'”
In the first part, Christmas-Eve, a young man enters a chapel alone for a holiday service. During the service, though, he becomes restless and begins contemplating the preacher’s hypocrisy, as he perceives it, and his own doubts of God’s goodness. He leaves the service, choosing to think to himself out in the cold. He ponders on his own faith and that of the preacher.
The contemplations he enters into are reminiscent to the relational theology of George MacDonald, or “Ugo Bassi’s Sermon in the Hospital” by Harriet Eleanor Hamilton-King. Browning reflects on the relationship between free will and creation. How can God create a good creation when he must grant his creatures some autonomy?
The main character speaks cynically of the preacher at first, but, in time, he is compelled to separate those aspects of religion that are merely social or traditional, from those aspects of faith that are real and deal with the unseen.
I recommend this poem, especially if you are dealing with doubt (or “deconstruction”) or enjoy relational theology. It starts slow but when it gets going it is very good.