by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)
We are certainly in the midst of winter these days. The temperature has dropped thanks to the polar vortex and we have “snow on snow on snow.” If you’re a winter person, you’re probably enjoying this change from the relatively mild winter we had last year. You may be taking advantage of the opportunities for skiing, making snow people (yes, snow people), sledding, and taking the dog for a romp in the snow. But if you’re not a winter sport enthusiast, or if you used to be but aren’t any more, then February can feel like it’s much longer than its twenty-eight days. It can feel like we are in the midst of “the bleak midwinter.”
You may recognize this as the title to a hymn we sing sometimes at Christmastime. I have always loved this hymn for its evocative winter imagery. I have a version of the song on a CD of Christmas music by James Taylor and I always stop and listen to the words: “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…snow on snow on snow.” If you want to check out the hymn version of this piece, it’s hymn #128 in The New Century Hymnal, and the same number in the Pilgrim Hymnal. You can also find James Taylor’s rendition of this song on YouTube.
I am in awe of the poetry in this hymn, which was originally written as a poem by Christina Rossetti entitled “A Christmas Carol.” It was published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1872 and then set to music in 1906 by none other than Gustav Holst, the well-known composer of the orchestral suite, “The Planets,” among other works. Holst’s composition for this poem, entitled “Cranham,” is the tune to which we still sing Rossetti’s words from our hymnals. The musical lineage of this beloved Christmas hymn is truly something special. But for me, it’s the words that I cherish.
Rossetti wrote the poem to express how Christmastime looked and felt in her native England – snowy, grey, and cold. This is often how Christmas looks and feels here in the states as well, so the words feel very familiar to me, even welcome. It’s interesting that we welcome the “snow on snow on snow” in December (even “dream” of it, as the Irving Berlin song says) but wish for its demise by February. Maybe someone could write a sequel to Berlin’s song – something like, “I’m dreaming of a balmy February, just like the ones in Brazil.” At any rate, with the holidays behind us, the continuing snow can seem unnecessary, even wearying.
This is another reason I love this hymn so much. Rossetti doesn’t leave us with the bleak winter imagery. Into this cold landscape she weaves the optimism of the Christmas story. She offers us images of angels and archangels gathering together in song, images of cherubim and seraphim filling the night sky, and a mother’s love expressed as Mary kisses her newborn son. All images of the Christmas story to be sure, but more than this. Rossetti’s words remind me that even in times when I grow weary of the bleakness around me, God is at work doing something amazing. Even in a bleak landscape, God’s work is going on – work which is transforming what is and what will be. It may not be as obvious as angels singing on high, or cherubim filling the night sky, but it is happening. Sometimes, it looks a lot like resting or waiting.
Some years ago, I came across a liturgy for winter solstice which emphasized the blessing of winter as a time for things to rest. The author noted that just as nature needs winter to rest from the exertion of summer and to store the energy needed for spring, so too we may have things we’re concerned about that will benefit from some rest, some time when we set them aside, when we release our pointed focus on them. Doing this doesn’t mean we give up. It means giving them over to God to see what God may be doing that we just don’t see when we’re so focused on our concerns.
Of course, there are some things that do require our immediate attention and times when it is clear how we need to take action. But there are also times when we aren’t sure what to do or how to proceed. These are the times when it may be more helpful to soften our focus, to let things rest for a little while. As this particular liturgy noted, we may see more clearly how to proceed when there is more light – as in the spring, or when we gain the insight that God can provide to us when we let go. Releasing our tight grip may help us to see the angels singing around us or to feel God’s motherly kiss reassuring us that we’re not alone. And it may help us see more clearly how to proceed.
The concluding verse of Rossetti’s poem offers us some guidance in this as well. She notes that when we don’t know what to do, we actually can do something of great importance. In relation to the Christmas story, Rossetti notes that the shepherds knew exactly what to bring the baby Jesus; they brought a lamb. The Magi also knew exactly what to bring; they brought their exquisite gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What can others offer who aren’t shepherds or wise men? What can we offer?
Rossetti provides us with a simple yet profound answer, “I can give my heart.” There really is nothing greater we can give. With our heart, we give our hopes and our fears, our joys and our concerns knowing that we can trust God to hold these tenderly. We can release our grip on these and let them rest in God’s care. During this bleak midwinter, as the earth in the Northern Hemisphere rests up for the coming spring, we may find that it’s a time for us to rest as well. A time for us to give our heart in trust to the One who knows us the best, the One whose wisdom and guidance far outshines our own, in the assurance that with more light we will know how to move forward.