Waiting in Bleakness
Our household loves music. It doesn't help that I routinely play music or live concert videos through our surround sound system at whatever the daily allotted limit is. Singing is a part of our family worship. So naturally, the kids are often heard singing a jingle, tune, or entire song. This is particularly true about Christmas music during the Advent and Christmas season. We have no fast rule about when the music starts, but the first tune to grace our speakers is typically something from Sufjan Stevens. Something from Sinatra, Nat King Cole, or Harry Connick Jr is typically second in the rotation. We are predictable.
In the last few years, however, we have tried to delineate certain artists or albums for the season of Advent and kept the others for the actual season of Christmas. This has led to discussions about lyrics, then track lists, and the possibility of elaborate playlists for better seasonal distinctions. Attempts are made to play the songs and albums that are more fluently “Advent-ish” (emphasis on attempt) as we are inoculated by the commercial Christmas season. As part of this effort, I stumbled upon the Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter” a few years ago and was immediately enraptured with the lyrics.
Originally a poem entitled “A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti, the lyrics performed in modern renditions differs from take to take. But the song’s bleak opening lines always stay the same and they instantly struck me as pertinent and beautiful—particularly as an Advent song. As the poem described the nativity night, the song does eventually describe the Nativity of Christ, but Rossetti’s poem starts with the following lines:
In the bleak mid-winter
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 mid-winter
The vivid cold and despair echo loudly. The simplistic “snow on snow, snow on snow” provides the visual completeness of the bleak condition for the poem’s setting. But the entirety of the opening stanza can only be summarized as "bleak." Rossetti’s intent was to open with a depiction of Bethlehem before the birth of Christ. This is very unlike "Away in a Manger" or "Silent Night." Those songs see creation anticipating the coming Christ just as one might await family with a cup full of hot cocoa and a thick blanket. There is a pleasant snow falling but not uncomfortable.
Rossetti's poem is dramatically different. Everything is briskly unpleasant. Bringing her English winter into the context of Bethlehem, Rossetti provides a historic and visual element to what can only be described as the spiritual bleakness that belonged to creation before the birth of Christ. Though perhaps unfamiliar to our ears in this context, Paul does say creation “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22). If Paul could say that after the incarnation, imagine the cold groaning before the glorious Advent! There is a unique perspective to "In the Bleak Mid-winter" that provides material for meditation during Advent. Because the time of Advent is the "waiting" in this bleakness before the dawning of our Savior Jesus Christ.
When we turn to Scripture, we see that the vivid bleakness of the Rossetti’s artful fancy is not restricted to Bethlehem in the days leading up to Christ’s birth. No, in fact, it describes all of creation under the fall. The bleak imagery and coldness stretches all the way back to the Garden of Eden in the interaction of Adam and Ever with their Creator. For instance, Genesis 3:8 could be interpreted as God arriving in the “storm of the evening” (e.g. Exo. 15:10; Jon. 1:4) and not the tepid “cool of the day” which we are familiar. To put it another way, Adam and Eve are not cowering from a gentle “And He Walks with Me” version of God Almighty. They are already aware their future is bleak. They are hiding from the God whose voice is “like the roar of many waters” (Rev. 1:15):
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” — Genesis 3:8-11
As a father, I have been guilty of barging in on my kids in a similar manner. As a child, I was routinely told I was loud—oft sounding angrier or harsh than my intent. Judah has inherited my loudness. In either case, the scattering of my kids when guilt is to be distributed is on a Biblical scale. Despite my poor representation of Divine judgment, my example helps provide imagery for this situation. Adam and Eve are not cowering at mere whispering in the wind.
Like in Rossetti’s poem, the wind that blew through the garden was likely a “Frosty wind made moan.” And though God provides a balm in the form of a sacrifice, this is merely clothes to endure the cold. The sacrifice points ahead to the day of the Infant child's birth and subsequent death. The history of humanity in between resides in this persistent hiding from the storm of God’s presence. Though perhaps lacking actual snow, the coldness of Adam and Eve walking out of the Garden was probably more attuned to an earth “hard as iron” and “water like stone” as Rossetti depicts and less like a Precious Moments decoration. This is the bleak condition of the human race.
This is the baggage we carry into the season of Advent which begins the church calendar. "Ordinary Time"—the time of the church—is left behind. The re-creation of the world begins anew in the Advent of Jesus Christ. The season of our redemption starts anew with a reminder of this coldness and isolation. This is our coldness and isolation. It is this Biblical period of waiting on the Messiah that is reflected in Advent and ultimately realized at Christmas.
A Sliver of Hope
All of this emphasis on how God comes to the Garden is important. Not merely for overthrowing nostalgia but for the parallel promise that this story delivers. It is worth noting that God comes into the Garden with a Spirit of judgment since God does not actually make a gospel promise to Adam or Eve:
The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15) [Emphasis added]
It is this overlooked fact that might explain why Adam and Eve are not listed in Hebrews 11 among the people of faith—they did not receive an actual promise from God. The early hints of the Gospel are not a promise to Adam and Eve. They remain in the bleakness of God’s judgment as God pronounces judgment upon the serpent. The sliver of hope comes in the promised destruction of the evil one and the clothing they take with them into the wilderness. Adam and Eve have received the judgment of death. They have also heard promise a loud, resounding “No” to the final victory of death. They go out of the garden awaiting the fulfillment of God's judgment against the serpent.
The season of Advent begins anew the travels of the church from the garden to the nativity and finally to the cross. We look ahead to God's judgment in Christ that reconciles the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). We begin though by casting our eyes on this moment in the garden. The darkness has set in and for mankind was to stay for millennia. This is how our story enters in the story of redemption. Our story begins with Advent in this darkness and waiting.
Yet, we cannot fully stay there, can we? Though this time for Advent is good for “waiting on Christ,” we have seen the fulfillment of the cross. In a greater sense, we wait as those who have seen the hope of the Messiah revealed. Our days of waiting are numbered, and we know their end. The nativity and the bright Star of David await us in the near future.
The second verse of Rossetti’s poem sees the Savior break into the lives of Mary and Joseph in no less dramatic way than God’s entrance to the Garden. The only response to the bleakness of God banishing Adam and Eve is for God to burst forth into the bleakness with a shining and radiant light:
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
So while the church meditates in the coldness during Advent, it also recognizes the season of Advent as the last of this coldness. "Heaven and earth shall flee away" indeed. The King is coming with His Spirit to bring a good word of judgment to redeem His people. The ice and snow are beginning to melt just as in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Christ "comes to reign." And yet, still, Jesus Christ does not arrive to fanfare or jubilation. He arrives in the midst of “the bleak mid-winter.” He does not come to a throne but to a stable. And on that night particular night, Rossetti says “Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow.”
We should hesitate to rush from meditating on this bleakness. Because it is here that the Infant Holy was born. Instead, for these few and precious weeks of Advent, let us sit here in the bleak midwinter and remember—this is where Christ comes to meet and redeem us.