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Artillery Row

Candles in the cold

Hopeful thoughts in dark times

“Now is the winter of our discontent.” Until quite recently it was the case that Shakespeare’s words were used to capture a by-gone era — the gloomy Britain of the 1970s, frozen by strikes, political inaction, and Cold War fears. The phrase has, of course, now gained a new lease of life. This winter is marked by a wave of industrial action and subsequent severe disruption, economic fears, rising inflation, and grave concerns about turmoil in international energy markets. “Winter of discontent” is no longer merely a description of our past. 

If we look eastwards across Europe, we see a harsher front in our winter of discontent. In the snow-covered fields around the Dnipro river, brave Ukrainian citizen-soldiers, against all the odds, hold back Putin’s forces. In the cities of Ukraine, experiencing Putin’s bombardment, families take shelter in basements, without electricity or running water, in the dark and cold of winter.

In her book Winters in the World (published this year), exploring the seasons of the year in Anglo-Saxon England, Eleanor Parker describes a deep-rooted idea of “the threat of winter”, the land “fettered with frost”: “Winter is imagined as crushing and repressing the life within the earth, painfully forcing back any shoots of growth”. This being so, “winter was a metaphor to which an Anglo-Saxon poet might turn when trying to evoke a mood of powerlessness, the sense of being trapped by forces beyond one’s control”. 

We are rediscovering the sober wisdom of Anglo-Saxon poets of centuries long past. The gloomy, cold darkness of winter seems again to describe our own times: its fears, its divisions, its economic woes. 

This might bring to mind words many of us will have sung over recent days:

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.

The words of Christina Rossetti’s carol, of course, bring us to behold the One whose birth “in bleak midwinter” brings hope, light, and warmth amidst the gloom, dark, and cold:

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

In the gloom, dark, and cold of winter, we celebrate Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord. We hear afresh the words of the Christmas gospel, again see the Christ Child in the manger, again sing the joyful words of the carols. In the Christ Child we behold and are drawn into light and life everlasting, grace and mercy, love and goodness. In the comfort and joy brought to us by the Lord’s Nativity, bleak midwinter loses its hold over our hearts and souls. Harsh darkness, bitter coldness gives way to grace upon grace in the Holy Child.

But wait. We might sing about “the bleak midwinter, long ago”. We might heartily join in the carol “See amid the winter’s snow”. Rarely, however, does a Christmas now go past that we do not find some New Atheist ideologue on Twitter, or (what is worse) an “edgy” cleric eager to shock conventional piety and placate fashionable enlightened opinion, informing us that Jesus was not born in winter. They take delight in declaring that in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity, there is no reference at all to date or season. The winter cold and snow of carols and paintings is, we are told, an artificial creation, to be laughingly dismissed.

It is, of course, partly correct — neither Matthew nor Luke nor John refer to time or season for the birth of Christ. When the early church decided to commemorate the birth of Christ on 25th December, it was a decision taken in rather warmer climes than found in the far off — and yet to be evangelised — northlands of Europe.

The poets and artists of the Christian tradition, who have handed to us this imagery of the Christ Child born in bleak mid-winter, were aware of this. They were also aware of that which the New Atheist ideologue and the “edgy” cleric seem too unimaginative to grasp. The language of winter surrounding our celebrations of the Lord’s Nativity speaks a deep truth to our hearts and souls.

Christ was indeed born in the midst of this world’s winter 

Christ was indeed born in the midst of this world’s winter: the winter that every human being has known since, to use the evocative imagery of Genesis, our first parents Adam and Eve were banished from the summer delights of the Garden of Eden. Since that primordial Fall, every human being has known bleak midwinter. The winter of our malice, greed, and anger. The winter of frailty, illness, or bereavement. The winter of our own failures and shame. The winter of a world scarred by injustices, violence, and bitter division. 

In this bleak mid-winter Christ was born. Light and life everlasting, grace and mercy, love and goodness, took flesh in the very depths of this world’s long, cold, dark, bitter winter. Receiving the Christ Child in heart and soul, we are brought to participate in that light and life everlasting, grace and mercy, love and goodness, freeing us from the hold of our winters. The forces of winter then no longer define us. We become bearers of light and life amidst the winters of this world.

When Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer, chose a Gospel reading for Holy Communion on Christmas Day, he did not turn to Saint Luke’s well-known pastoral narrative: Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, no room in the inn, swaddling clothes and manger, shepherds and angels. Instead, he opted for Saint John’s mysterious proclamation of the Incarnation. This means that, in the midwinter darkness of Christmas Day, we hear in Book of Common Prayer services the words of Saint John ring out: “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not”. 

“And the darkness comprehended it not.” Whatever winter experiences we may know in the course of our earthly life, whatever coldness and darkness may seem to overwhelm us, light and life everlasting, grace and mercy, love and goodness come to us, warmly enfold us, and forever hold us in the Christ Child. May He be our comfort and joy, this Christmas Day and all our days.

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