In the Bleak Midwinter: Looking for Light in the Midst of Darkness

Happy fourth day of Christmas, everyone! I hope your “four calling birds” arrived safely and are getting along swimmingly with your partridge, two turtle doves, and three French hens. I am sure that everyone is especially looking forward to tomorrow’s gifts!

All jest aside, if you are reading this on the 28th, Merry Christmas! I am likely somewhere on I-20 in an embarrassingly full Camry with a sleeping corgi in the backseat, finishing the last leg of our Christmastide pilgrimage to Texas.

Hopefully, all of the audiobooks are playing correctly and I am enjoying Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel, a hilarious, wacky, and slightly irreverent book that I cannot recommend highly enough (if you are into that sort of thing, anyway). Or, conversely, I am listening to Church of the Incarnation’s Service of Nine Lessons and Carols for the umpteenth time. This is not a paid endorsement, scouts’ honor, but it is quite fantastic and might be one of the best uses of $15 that I have found in a long time.

Unlike the last time I drove this route, the trees lining the interstate will likely be bare, twiggy variations of their lush, springtime selves. The green, towering weeds that dotted the medians during the warm spring will now be brown and crisp. The gas station and fast-food chain Christmas décor will be beginning to sag and droop a bit; after all, they have probably been hung since Labor Day. As I write this weeks prior, I am in the throes of a busy Advent season bursting with church activities, ordination paperwork deadlines, choir rehearsals, Christmas parties, a few funerals (what is it about December and funerals?), and the list goes on.

Fowl Language Comics
Courtesy of Fowl Language Comics

It is hard to believe that in a few short weeks, all will be eerily calm.

When the glimmering Christmas lights are dimmed, the trees are taken down, and the nativity scenes are carefully packed away until next year, the death of winter is felt perhaps a bit more profoundly. Even as a child growing up in Texas, January was far more depressing than December. It was cold, rainy, and sometimes icey. There were no holiday decorations or festive distractions to mask the dead grass, bare trees, and flowerless garden beds. It is an odd feeling to go from singing the glad tidings of Christ’s incarnation and welcoming winter with open arms, to, well, cursing the season’s very existence.

It suddenly becomes clear why “In the Bleak Midwinter” is part of our canon of congregational song. It is a hymn text that has borne the brunt of criticism for its flowery language and ridiculous insinuation that it might have snowed in first century Palestine, much less was enough below freezing to make “water like a stone.”

However, poet Christina Rossetti was getting at a much larger idea. She draws on a long-standing tradition of associating winter imagery with the incarnation, not to be taken in literalist terms, but to convey the dire circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth. Snow, ice, winter, cold, and all of their equally grey relatives are used time and time again in literature to portray death, desolation, and darkness, and it is into this scene that light is born.

In the age before central heating, antibiotics, and proper in-home ventilation, to say that the winter months were “rough” would be the understatement of the year. Winter was neither holly nor jolly. People remained indoors for warmth; thus, disease spread more quickly, and improperly ventilated wood-burning stoves created hazardous respiratory conditions via soot and ash. Crops went dormant, food became a bit more precious, and winter storms often halted trade of goods. Winter was dark, and pre-electric darkness was indeed something of which to be fearful.

It is against this backdrop that Rossetti captures the enormity of this odd moment: God of boundless light reaches down to earth, encapsulated in darkness of its own making. Even the darkest winter cannot hinder the divine light from piercing through, so long as we are in a position to look for it.

As much as I have pointlessly mused about moving Christmas to January, or at least to the middle of winter to selfishly ease my seasonal affective disorder, it is not likely going to happen. Perhaps Christmas being at what is essentially the beginning of winter is a good and joyful thing. Right at the start, we are reminded that while we are indeed walking in heavy darkness, a light has shined with the power to dispel all forces of desolation.

Make no mistake, we still have eight days of Christmastide left, and I whole-heartedly intend on celebrating to the fullest (and I hope that you will as well); however, I also hope that we will carry the light of the Incarnation from this beautiful, miraculous Christmastide into the new year and beyond.

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