MISSION AND MINISTRY | There’s no shortage of great holiday tunes, but few get me into the spirt of the season like “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It doesn’t get the airtime on the 24-hour Christmas radio stations that “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” does, but it should. It’s a haunting a deeply personal carol about the heart’s response to the coming of God into the world. Behind the carol lies a poem by the 19th century English poet Christina Rossetti, and, in its best-known setting, the music is by the composer Gustav Holst. The Christian rock band Jars of Clay does a take on the Holst tune that I like a lot, although if you, like me, had your musical tastes formed in the 80s, you might be interested (or maybe disturbed is the right word) to discover the version done by the synthpop band Erasure from their 2013 album “Snow Globe.”
Back to Rosetti. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a beautiful and atmospheric poem that contrasts the desolation and darkness of winter with the joy of the Incarnation and the birth of Jesus, and in that sense it’s a real Christmas poem. But Rossetti also wrote another seasonal poem, aptly and simply titled “Advent,” that reminds us in its opening lines that waiting for the Savior to come into the world can be hard work:
This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.
Advent, as we’re reminded every year, is a period of waiting and hoping, and while Christianity promises that what we’re waiting for is worth it, the reality is that the waiting itself can be painful and anxiety-provoking, as Rossetti so poignantly captures in presenting the heartsickness that comes when hope is deferred. We hope and pray for God’s coming into the world during Advent, and we believe that God will make good God’s promise. And, while millions of children will wait in gleeful anticipation for Santa Claus to slide down their chimneys with his sack full of toys, those of us who work on a college campus need only look at the faces of our students to see the toll that Advent waiting can take: waiting for classes to end, waiting for final grades to come in, waiting to learn about law school admissions or job interviews, waiting to spend time with family and friends back home.
But as I reflect on Advent, I also find it difficult to avoid viewing this season of waiting against the backdrop of politics in the United States and, to take an important example, the uncertain future of our neighbors with DACA. As a country, we are waiting for the legislative solution promised by both parties, yet the moment never seems to arrive, deferred as it is in favor of concerns deemed by somebody somewhere to be more important. Our national situation seems appropriate for Advent, which, in its expectation of the light that emerges from darkness, of a baby born to a virgin, of God come to Earth in a human body that suffers, bleeds, and dies alongside of us so that we may know life, is a time of paradox.
So as we wait – for the end of another semester, for relief for our friends and family, or for the coming of Jesus – let us all endeavor to be people of hope and of generosity who, like the speaker of Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” discover that the greatest gift we can offer to God and one another in this season of waiting is the gift of our hearts.
May your Advent hopes find fulfillment in the promised joy to come!