In the Bleak Midwinter (Advent 2)

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By Abigail Bezruckzyk

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As a freshman at Cornell, this advent season is a little different than the ones I’m used to. Think about how you experienced the weeks before Christmas as a child: with eager anticipation. When decorations came out, you knew that soon there would be presents under that tree and maybe sweet things like cookies and hot chocolate. That anticipation brought so much joy.

But here at Cornell, it seems that a lot requires our focus and can replace our joy with stress. The sight of a Christmas tree may give us some delight, but there is something that stands in the way of fully experiencing it. The monster of the Advent season is coming for us- in the shape of some 150 minute exams: Finals.

By the time you read this article, finals will be over, and Christmas will be on the horizon. But let us reflect on the past few weeks, on our long library hours, and on the sudden blizzards of Ithaca. Let us reflect on that feeling that pervaded the campus, the essence of the bleak mid-winter, so that we can see the joy and gift of Christmas with fresh eyes: that Jesus, despite his power and majesty, comes into our bleak winters so that we can be saved.

In the Bleak Midwinter
1872, Christina Rossetti

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.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

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 hymn begins with some imagery to which, through the hard and stressful times in our lives, we can relate. It describes the icy wind, paired with the verb moan which conjures an image of strain and despair. Earth itself is frozen and is covered with layers upon layers of snow- concealing and burdening the landscape. We can feel a small bit of this bleakness with finals, in our fear of failure, and in the stress for success. In other times, perhaps we have felt this more deeply. We feel trapped in this desolate and cold place with a long, bleak, and hopeless winter stretching before us, both literally- in the winter of Ithaca- and figuratively- through chronic illness, depression, and other heavy difficulties we bear.

We then begin to view in the second verse the opposite image: one of heaven. One of joy, praise, and worship; one of warmth and light. One where God resides and watches over us, where cherubim worship night and day. But here is the amazing and unusual gift that Christmas brings: Jesus, as God, descends from this place of perfection, of power, and of praise, and enters into our darkness. He meets us in this unpleasant place with his birth as a sacrifice in itself. He is born into our bleak mid-winter.

The hymn sets up contrasting images; ones of the heavenly praise Jesus deserves and ones of the human conditions he sustained and human love with which he is met. A stable suffices the Almighty Lord. Cherubim worship him, but he accepts milk and hay. Angels fall before him, yet here the animals bow. And his mother gives her heart in a kiss.

Here, Jesus is ultimately powerful yet exceedingly humble. This humility is not a human humility, where we tend to pride ourselves on how humble we can be. We may say, “this suffices”, as Jesus does, but inside we yearn for more. Jesus, the most important being ever on earth, has a modest view of his own importance and does not ask for more. Can you imagine that? Giving up the perfection of heaven, coming here, and accepting gladly the smallest of offerings?

What can we possibly give the one who has given us everything? He does not ask for money or possessions; those are the easy gifts to give, the human gifts to give. In reference to the small offerings, this carol repeats the phrase “enough for Him”. While these gifts will never feel like enough to us, he humbly accepts the offerings that we make. We give what is dear to us, what is close to our hearts: A mother, a kiss. A shepherd, a lamb. But the best thing we can give, and the only thing for which he asks, is our hearts.  

Let us open our hearts to the one who came for us in the darkest, coldest, hopeless places. Let us realize that he rescues us in our winters and shows us what it means to love. In turn, we are inspired to return that love him and others. That is what takes us out of the darkness of in our lives (and the darkness of finals), and into the light of Christmas. That is what we eagerly await this Advent season.

This blog post begins a series which will use different hymns to partake in Advent and to help staff and readers alike.

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Want to know more about Abigail? Read her bio here.

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