This past month, as we celebrated Christmas, one of my favorite hymns seemed particularly appropriate, and for obvious reasons: “In the Bleak Midwinter." You recall the first verse: “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.”
Certainly, these words are appropriate to the winter we’ve been experiencing so far this year — frosty winds, snow piled on snow, cold and bleak weather that has set several records. Ironically, of course, I always associate this hymn with a retelling of the first Christmas in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. But, the weather then in that desert climate was a far cry from that described in the hymn, which was obviously written by someone who lived in our hemisphere.
These words perfectly capture the impact that the coming of Christ has into a dark, wintry and cold world. Our world, in fact!
When I first came to my present congregation, Knife River Lutheran Church, and started to sing with the church choir there, I learned yet another song about winter, built around a poem by Samuel Longfellow, the brother of the famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Although Samuel never achieved his brother’s fame, he certainly had a gift for language, and he wrote numerous hymns that were published during his lifetime, among them this one:
"'Tis winter now/the fallen snow has left the heavens all coldly clear;
through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow/and all the earth lies dead and drear.
"And yet God's love is not withdrawn/his life within the keen air breathes;
his beauty paints the crimson dawn/and clothes each branch with glittering wreaths.
"And though abroad the sharp winds blow/and skies are chill/and frosts are keen,
home closer draws her circle now/and warmer glows her light within.
"O God, you give the winter's cold/as well as summer's joyous rays,
you warmly in your love enfold/and keep us through life's wintry days."
This wintry month of January and this New Year of 2020 began with the ongoing festival of Christmas, the 12-day celebration leading up to Epiphany, Jan. 6, when the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child was observed. Now that festivity is behind us, and we admittedly have a lot of winter left to make our way through, which pleases some of us and fills others of us with dread.
But winter is a season with its own beauty, and some of the extremes of cold and dark make the significance of the coming of light and warmth in Christ’s birth all the more powerful. Perhaps we might try to reframe our attitudes about winter to find more of the blessings it can bring. As a meme I saw on Facebook read: “If you take no joy in the snow, you have less joy — but still the same amount of snow."
Wise words! Winter undoubtedly presents challenges, and yet it also offers up a unique and celestial beauty, as the above poems capture. Perhaps if we approach it with that eye of God’s masterful artistry, we will find more joy in the snow, even as we shovel our way out.
Pastor Susan lives in Duluth and is the Pastor at Knife River Lutheran Church, a congregation that practices excellent hospitality and serves delicious food.