Wednesday, December 27, 2017

In The Bleak Mid-Winter

I have mixed feelings about the winter. The sight of fresh fallen snow on the trees and housetops is beautiful, but the long nights and the bitter winds get me down. 

Sometimes the winter feels like a cold dark tunnel that goes on forever. As it drags into February, March, and sometimes even lingers into April, my heart really starts to groan in anticipation for the arrival of spring, sun, and warmer weather.

The one thing that makes the arrival of winter bearable, and even joyous, in my opinion is Christmas. As the weather gets colder and the sky gets darker, we hang festive wreaths and decorative lights, we sing songs of joy and peace, and gather with our friends and loved ones. Christmas arrives to fill our darkness with light and gladness.

Without Christmas, winter would not be nearly as merry. Think of the way C.S. Lewis describes the reign of the White Witch in his classic children stories the Chronicles of Narnia, “It was always winter and never Christmas.”

Christmas arrives to break the spell of the witch. It assures us that the cold and dark will not last forever. We gather together and are warmed in the glow of the radiant Christ child.

I can’t think of anyone who captures my feelings about Winter better than the poet Christina Rossetti in her beautiful poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter” published in January, 1872. Rossetti originally titled her poem “A Christmas Carol” and it was indeed set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. Harold Darke’s anthem setting was voted the best Christmas carol by choirmasters in 2008. The song begins on a melancholy note,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter long ago.

Pedantic critics like to point out that there would almost certainly not be snow in Bethlehem and that Jesus probably wasn’t born in the winter anyway! While we might take exception to their dating of Jesus’ birth, I think we miss the point if we get hung up on the historical setting of the story. I don’t think that is Rossetti’s concern. She is writing to say something about her own time and place. Even though the events she describes happened “long ago,” she writes of them as if they  were something that happened where she lives, in her own time, 19th century England.

Critics also dismiss this song because they don’t think it is doctrinally rigorous. I disagree! I believe there is a lot of profundity to Rossetti’s lyrics, but its meaning is contained in her descriptive imagery. She shows us rather than tells us the truth of Christmas.

The bleak mid-winter she describes is a symbol of our human condition. The world that Christ was born into was frozen in its sin, spiritually dead. Like a garden in the midst of winter, there was no life, nothing growing. Our hearts were like the Earth, hard as iron and the water like a stone.

The human race was buried under its own iniquity. With every passing age our guilt piled up higher and higher with no end in sight, snow on snow, snow on snow.
Who can imagine the joy and vitality of spring in such a frozen wasteland? It would seem a long way off. It is to such a hopeless scene that Christ comes. When we are in our darkest and most desolate place, our Lord visits us. He draws near to us. He shares our sorrow and pain. There in our weakness he is Emmanuel, God with us. She continues,

Our God, heav’n cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heav’n and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Have you ever stopped to ponder the miracle of Christmas? Our minds cannot even begin to fathom the shear immensity of God. Even the creation, the earth, the solar system, the universe boggles the mind, and yet God is the creator and sustainer of all of this. The scriptures tell us that even the highest heavens cannot contain him. God is bigger, God is greater, than anything we know and yet on that first Christmas Eve he came among us, born of a simple woman, and lying in a manger. The Lord God of all creation became a helpless baby.

Christ is God’s gift of love to the world, the gift of his own presence. The fountain of God’s love overflows from heaven to earth. As Rossetti wrote in another beautiful carol, “Love came down at Christmas. Love all lovely. Love Divine.”

Only the love of God can thaw our icy hearts. Only the light of the world, Jesus Christ, can dispel the darkness and bring spring and new life to the frozen world.
Rossetti wonders, “What can I give him, poor as I am?”

We all have had this experience. What do you give to that friend who has everything? Finding the right gift for everybody can be difficult especially when times are tight and your wallet slim.  Have you ever received a wonderful Christmas gift from someone only to realize, to your embarrassment, that you had nothing to give to them?

God has given us the perfect gift in his son, Jesus Christ. He has showered us with his love and generosity without us having done anything to deserve that gift. In our spiritual poverty we have nothing to offer him in return. What could we possibly give him that he hasn’t given us?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.

The greatest Christmas gifts are the most simple and heart felt. Sometimes our love and presence is the best thing we can offer our friends and family. Christ wants nothing more from us than our love and devotion, our heart. The only thing we have to give him is our gratitude and devotion.

The winter may be cold and bleak, the night may be long, but within our hearts is an unconquerable hope, in our hearts is the warmth of God’s love. Merry Christmas!

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