Recently, I happened to be going through some boxes of books in our basement, and I came upon a small well-creased paperback of the poems of Walt Whitman. It was clearly an old edition and I wondered whose it was. Inside the front cover I found written in blue ink: Lt. Henry G. Ingraham, US Naval Reserve. On the inside of the back cover was a list of other titles Penguin Books must have provided to soldiers, sailors and airmen during the war. There are titles about guerrilla warfare, sabotage, handbooks for Army wives and mothers, as well as The Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder.
My father-in-law, who was known as Hank, was on a ship in the Pacific during WWII. I guess that he brought this little volume of poetry by another native of Long Island to help him keep soul and mind together on those long, hot, and anxious months of warfare against Japan. Polly and her brothers tell me that their father spoke very little of his time during the war, like so many who returned from that horrible time. But looking at his well-thumbed issue of Leaves of Grass led me to imagine that he read in the lines of this most democratic American poet something of the reason for which he was gave so much of the prime of his life and why so many of his fellow sailors and soldiers gave, what Abraham Lincoln called, “the last full measure of their devotion.”
Whitman celebrated not only the diversity of America, but also the full inclusion of every human difference into his robust embrace of every race, creed, gender, sexuality, occupation, political persuasion, and class. Native Americans, immigrants, captains of industry, nursing mothers, laborers, preachers and practitioners of every religion all were cause for exhilaration. Though he served as a nurse for the Union, Whitman’s love for humanity expanded to the suffering on both sides of the Civil War. He has been called the prophet of our democracy, the poet of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the “Four Freedoms” of our nation. If Whitman expressed intolerance for anyone, it was for those who had no tolerance for others, whose small-mindedness threatened to limit the great expansive vision of a nation whose vocation was to see divinity in the human. It was that intolerance that my father-in-law, and so many of the Great Generation, fought against and sacrificed so much. Now, Hank was not a church-goer, but I believe that carrying the pocket edition of Whitman in his berth on a naval ship in the battle-churned Pacific reminded him of how the rise of totalitarian regimes threatened humanity’s great destiny. What courage and hope such a vision of God’s expansive and inclusive love gave to Whitman, as well as Hank, my-father-in-law, and can give us in our own day.
Which brings me to this Christmas. We live in a time where we are might be tempted to see in our neighbors enemies who were once considered simply neighbors, fellow citizens, children of God. The message of Christmas is that in Jesus, God, the Divine Presence, enters and infuses all humankind—indeed all creation, with Divinity, with sacred dignity and beauty, holiness, even among those whom we would least imagine God having anything to do with. And the divine presence can make us more like the child Jesus in the wooden manger, and the adult Jesus, whose arms of love were stretched out to include all on the hard wood of the cross.
May Jesus, in whom all things human and all things divine find their full union—paradoxical, robust, resounding, multitudinous. May the appearance of the Word made Flesh to live among us, bring us all a new sense of abiding peace, hope, and joy this Christmas and in the year ahead.
--The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire