Had we been able to sing carols this year, many of us would inevitably be singing ‘In the bleak midwinter’. It was written by the romantic poet Christina Rossetti who was sister of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Its imagery, particularly the first verse, is borrowed from the signs of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. So the frosty winds moaning, begins to paint a picture of a winter which was harsh. The earth was hard as Iron and water was so frozen, it was like stone. Inevitably the ground was also white with snow. Snow had fallen, snow on snow…In the bleak midwinter long ago.
Rossetti, I suspect, drew her description of an earth sleeping in the depth of winter from her own experience of hard winters and dark nights which were part of her lot. In her early teens, her father had to give up his teaching post because of severe illness. He was plunged into depression. This was something which began to cloud her own life. When she was 14 she had a nervous breakdown and bouts of depression dogged her until she discovered the Anglo-Catholic expression of religion. So, In the bleak midwinter, may well have had an autobiographical foundation but also it reflects the kind of winters that were common in Britain and Northern Europe at the time.
Whilst Rossetti gave Christians of that period something to which they could relate, it was a far cry from the birth of the Christ-child in a Middle Eastern climate.
But it celebrated a Christmas which was not unconnected with the turning of the earth away from darkness towards light and, as such, it captured the essential message, particularly promoted by St. John in his Gospel account that the birth of Jesus was the Light coming into the world and which the world could not overcome.(something we need to remember and hold on to right now!)
Christmas and the turning of the year back towards the sun are related. One is the physical movement of the earth towards the lighter nights and the movement towards Spring whilst the other expresses a spiritual turning towards the Light of God which Jesus came to bring. A light which includes renewed growth and hope. The world turns in a pivotal way towards the new birth of Spring and the Incarnation turns human destiny toward the new life which becomes our inhertance through the life, teaching, Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the birth of the Christ child, the tiny shoots of this new life, hope and love are expressed in the manger and in the Adoration of the Shepherds (not forgetting the animals!)
In the world of nature, the buds are already forming on the trees and tiny shoots appear pushing up through the soil of the earth.
All around us, if we but look, we see nature hard at work as new growth appears, though there are plenty of signs that the beauty of nature never really sleeps.
Which is why the photo I have chosen to head this piece is of an Iris unguicularis which originates in North Africa, Syria and possibly the Holy Land, not to mention Cumbria where this photo was taken by my dear friend Gill Henwood. She tells me that it flowers from November to March.
In the bleak midwinter may well be a sign of the phase of the earth near to Christmas but so is the Iris illustrated above. There will plenty of other flowers just around the corner , such as aconites and snowdrops, Hellebores and crocuses.
Christmas follows soon after the shortest day and so becomes another sign that the world is turning in a new direction which brings renewed light, but this time in our hearts. Whatever darkness is dragging us down right now, we need to look up, look out and look around us.
The last line of Rossetti’s poem/hymn says that whilst we can’t give Jesus seemingly very much, we can give him our hearts.
In the midst of the darkest time of our planet with Covid, Global warming, and destruction of nature, it may not seem very much but, in truth, it is enough. It is everything.