Over the years I’ve learned that I need to use the time around Thanksgiving to get myself energized and ready for all that is to come in December. I really love this season, but for a pastor and his family, it’s a real test of endurance. So, I enjoy Thanksgiving Day. This year I got to make pies and bread, which makes me happy. In the days following, it’s time to get our household ready for the season. Lately that has included heading downtown on Saturday to support small businesses. Blessedly, the last couple of years it’s also included a victory for Michigan over Ohio State, but after almost two decades of scarlet and gray dominance, I know to hold onto those lightly!
I’m a firm believer that life needs a soundtrack, and so I always turn on music as the family gets out our Christmas decorations. You know the list — it must begin with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” and then hits other classics by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Burl Ives. Of course, we have some sacred music on the list too — “O Holy Night” and “Carol of the Bells” show up. It truly does set the mood along the lines of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The only thing that could make it better would be a light snowfall, some hot chocolate, and carolers out in the snow.
We do this not merely out of being practical, although that is certainly a part of it. No, I need to get the jolliness out of my system, so I can turn my focus to Advent, which is not something that Mariah Carey is crooning about. Advent is special, but it is darker, moodier, and sober. Advent means coming. It is a season where we prepare our homes and our hearts for Christmas, but it is also the time where we reflect on a dark and weary world and yearn for Christ to return and make all things new. It is the season where sweet songs of longing also are fierce laments. (For those of you who wish we’d get straight into your favorite Christmas hymns — “Joy to the World,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and so on — you now know why we delay. Those are for Christmas and the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow.)
Advent begins with a tone of hope, a hope that God is going to take the brokenness of this world and make it new. Almost 2000 years have passed since Jesus walked this mortal sphere and met a gruesome end on the cross. How long must we sing this song? When is Jesus coming back to finish the job? It’s a question that Christians have been asking for just as long. Our text from 2 Peter 3 touches on the impatience of the Christian community in the midst of their suffering. They were yearning for Jesus to finish the job, but it appeared that nothing was happening.
Peter’s words are just as important to us today as they were for them long ago. Time works differently for the eternal God. Do you think God is slow? That’s the wrong way to describe God. Rather, God is patient with you and everyone. God’s patience has a purpose. It allows time for all who would repent to repent. In the fullness of time, God will set the world to rights, exposing everything. All that is not of God will be consumed, and all that has a place in the reign of God will finally shine the way it should. That was true 2000 years ago; it is true now; it will still be true 2000 years from now. So, we yearn, and we wait patiently in hope.
This Advent we’re going to explore some songs of the season along with texts that will prepare our lives for the coming of Christ. A little over a year ago, we did this with around a dozen Songs of the Faith, and I found it so worthwhile to dive deeply into the music of our faith that we’re doing it again. This gives a depth, a gravity to the songs we sing together. I know that I find songs stick to my soul far better than rote memorization of scripture or even the best of sermons. In the coming weeks we’ll take a closer look at “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “What Child is This?” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” This week begins on a somber, reflective note with “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
I have to be honest with you. This is one of my favorites. Not all music matches wonderful lyrics with beautiful music, but this one sure does. The lyrics began as a poem by the wonderful British writer, Christina Rossetti. At the age of 42, she published a five verse poem under the title “A Christmas Carol.” The hymn keeps her writing intact, although most hymnals — including ours — have omitted the third verse. Rossetti published this poem in 1872 and died 22 years later in 1894. Twelve years after her death the fabulous British composer, Gustav Holst set her words to music in 1906. (You know Holst if you’ve ever heard his masterpiece The Planets. We also sing a tune from Jupiter called Thaxted, which appears in our hymnal under 341 “O God, Show Mercy to Us.”)
As perfect as this hymn setting is, I will focus on Rossetti’s poem. It begins in a world frozen solid, a picture into the depths of winter in England. Now, of course, we know that Jesus was not born in England, but our imagination is drawn into the connection between the still, cold, hard world at this time of year and the tender way that Christ comes. The first verse sets the scene. “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 midwinter, long ago.” Rossetti takes the reality of the English winter and turns it into a metaphor for the world where Jesus was born. It’s a hard, cold world. While the temperature was not freezing, the world into which Jesus arrived was not a friendly place. Every surface was hard and unyielding. Still, he came, even to an unreceptive world.
The second and third verses set the things of heaven and the things of earth in contrast. Verse two begins with the majesty of God. “Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.” But then it moves into the gentle and humble entrance of Jesus to the world. “In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed, the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.” God’s majesty is so great that the earth could not sustain his coming, yet God humbled himself and was born of Mary in a stable in Bethlehem, a place where few even noticed the entrance.
The third verse continues the contrast. Following Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Rossetti imagines that the angels have made their way from the fields nearby along with the shepherds to see Jesus. In this humble stable, among the animals, the very warriors of heaven are gathered oohing and ahhing over the child. But their glory is contrasted by intimacy between this young mother and her child, where her lips press against his cheek in worship.
The final verse takes elements of the nativity — the shepherds and Magi — and makes their devotion personal to the poet and to all who would sing this song. “What can I give him, poor as I am? 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.” This final image reminds me of John Calvin’s seal that had a heart placed in a hand and read, “My heart I offer you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” That’s where this hymn ends — in a response appropriate to God’s work.
This song, along with the season of Advent, is a fervent prayer for God’s coming. It’s a coming that isn’t just about what we’ll celebrate on Christmas. It’s also about the yearning for God to fix in us and in the world all that is not the way God wills it to be. That’s where Isaiah’s prayer begins, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” You’ve probably had moments in your life where you’ve prayed some version of this. We pray it when we see our children in trouble. We pray it at the scene of an accident. We pray it when we are at our wit’s end.
But as Isaiah’s lament continues, it moves from the action Isaiah hopes God will take into a sense that some of the mess is our own doing. In verse 5, the nouns switch from “you,” as in God, to “we.” We are part of the problem, even the best of us. We are also part of systems that perpetuate injustice, and God’s holy anger burns against sin in all its forms. It is into these spaces of brokenness that we sing and pray, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” God is making all things new, but God is also patient, not wanting any to perish.
And so, we begin Advent together, trusting that God will enter our bleak midwinter — not just the winter cold of Michigan but really the stoniness of this harsh, angry world — and in all gentleness and humility enter into every nook and corner of our lives. There is a contrast between heaven and earth. That contrast is something I invite us to hold onto this Advent because it is in this expectant waiting that we renew our trust that God is doing and will do the work that will complete the work of healing made manifest in that stable…in that bleak midwinter…long ago.