The poetry of Christina Rossetti, who gives us the hymn lyrics for In the Bleak Midwinter asks the reader/singer to pause and consider the spiritual gifts of this season. Later composed into a hymn by Gustav Holst, this poem, originally titled A Christmas Carol, is replete with the imagery and feeling of this dormant season. Consider a few of the phrases she uses to conjure the imagery of winter’s starkness:
- “Frosty wind made moan”
- “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”
- “Snow on snow on snow”
It makes one cold and chilled just reading it! Yet, there is a purpose in winter’s fallow days. It is a season of replenishment as the rains and snows fall upon the earth. It is a season that marks the end to another cycle of growth and life – trees letting go of last year’s leaves and putting final touches on another ring of growth to gird their trunk. Winter is more than a mere season of meteorology, it is a spiritual season as well.
When speaking of winter in these terms, persons sometimes assign it a less than grand function. We talk of the “winter seasons” of our lives, meaning those times of dormancy or starkness where it may appear on the surface that not much is happening. Do not be fooled by surface appearances. The work going on within, though hidden, can be significant. Just as the cold crisp wind of a northern front drives folks indoors, a winter season can lead one to some needed interior work. In spiritual terms, the weather front may manifest as disappointment or loss – there are many contributors – yet more important than what caused the hunkering down, is the result of that time and focus.
Were it not for winter seasons, many of the great Christian leaders, preachers and writers would not have been shaped and formed into the contributors they became. C.S. Lewis experienced the winter of a “grief observed” not to mention an early life of doubt. J.R.R. Tolkien knew the winds of winter as a young man raised as a ward of the church, dealing with the doubts of love and relationship. Mother Teresa embraced winter’s effects of poverty and simplicity as she gave herself to a life of serving those rejected by society.
Our spiritual winters may pale in comparison, yet still they come. Loneliness, depression, self-doubt, isolation, grief can all be the threshold into a winter season. None of us crosses that threshold with glee or eagerness, yet we do find ourselves on its doorstep at times. What would happen if we entered in? What might there be for us to learn? How will God meet us in that time and space and utilize its barrenness or bleakness to strip of the false measures of strength we’ve been fooled into embracing?
When I walk outside in the winter, I try to observe what is going on. There is yet life. Birds sing and flutter about, sometimes more visible due to the lack of foliage. Just this week we noted the frustration of a covey of robins who were perplexed by the frozen birdbath in the back lawn. What the robins are still doing here in mid-January, I do not know, perhaps embracing their own winter experience?
The squirrels have been particularly active over these winter days – just ask our dog! It is interesting to note their added girth, either from an increase in their fall diet, or the thickened coat to protect against winter’s chill. Whichever, they are notably a bit stouter in appearance these days.
As the temperatures fluctuate, I notice in our landscaping and garden plots, the peaking forth of some shoots from iris and other bulbs, as though testing the season and asking, “is it time?”. The Lenten rose plants remain green, resisting or enduring (I’m not sure which) until it’s time to do their thing once again.
And, with every windstorm, more of last fall’s leaves blow in from neighbor lawns and easements, often companioned by the fallen limbs that have died and given way from the canopy above. Which, if you are a fastidious lawn snob like I, means there is winter lawn work that needs attention.
All this is to suggest that the illusion of nothing happening in and on the landscape of winter is just that, an illusion. If we look closer it is obvious that life is moving right along, albeit at a quieter, subtler pace. Which is not in anyway a bad thing.
Winter is that season when we give ourselves permission to sit a bit longer by the fire. We throw on the covers and dig into a good book, maybe even the Good Book. We hold a hot mug of our favorite winter beverage. We savor the lingering darkness just before dawn, or draw the curtains and blinds closed at end of daylight. We rest, we reflect, we are renewed and replenished.
I find it interesting that Rossetti chose winter as descriptive of Jesus’ birth. Her poem (later hymn) is about the incarnation, after all. She describes a miraculous event with the language of winter. Snow doesn’t fit the part of the world where Jesus was born so much. And, while I’m sure there were dips in the temperature, to think of Bethlehem as somehow akin to experiencing a North Dakota winter seems a stretch. So, what is the artist doing here?
It may be the purity of snow fits her imagery for the purity of the Christ child. Maybe the starkness of winter serves as a good backdrop for how she perceives Jesus’ rather stark and humble birth? Again, note the lyrics chosen:
- All meanly wrapped in the rude manger lies
- A breastful of milk, a mangerful of hay, Enough for him, whom angels fall down before
More likely, I think, the conditions of winter she invokes are descriptive of the world and people to whom the Christ comes. When pondering a human response to this natal event, Rossetti asks the question, “what can I give him, poor as I am?” I marvel at her creative writing here, as she rehearses the manger’s scenery filled with humble shepherds and curious Magi. They have options when it comes to gifts to be given a new king. They could give a lamb or gold, frankincense, myrrh. But I (you)? We are the empty-handed ones at the manger of whom the author writes. What can we give him? Well, of course, we can give him our heart!
This is the gift a winter season of spirituality can bring if we will embrace it. It leads us inward to the discovery that we do have something with which to respond to God’s grace. That something may be more profound, more meaningful and more personal than any other response. If that, my friends, is what comes from winter; winter is not all bad.