Twelve Days: Amid Bleak Winters

Welcome to the start of another in my occasional attempts to blog through part of the daily lectionary. I’ll start this run of twelve Christmastide meditations on Christmas Eve, then resume on the 26th.

My favorite moment in my current favorite TV series involves my favorite words from one of my favorite Christmas carols. In the first episode of The Crown, British king George VI has just learned that he is dying of cancer when the Windsor family spends Christmas at their estate in Sandringham. When a group of villagers comes caroling, the king joins his subjects for an emotional rendition of the last verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter”:

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.

Now, I know that Jesus was almost surely not born on December 25th. And even if it was that day or month, the Middle Eastern climate of his birth wouldn’t have resembled the frigid one of Christina Rosetti’s Victorian imagining.

But if the story recorded in Luke 2 included no “snow on snow,” surely some wind made moan across a patch of Earth that “stood hard as iron.” For Jesus does “come to reign” — o’er all of us, shepherds, scholars, and sovereigns alike — amid some bleak winter or another.

“bleak midwinter” – Creative Commons (Magnus Hagdorn)

For some in 2020 Jesus comes as he did for George in 1951, amid the winter of a terminal illness, the bleak reminder of their mortality.

For billions more this year, he comes amid the winter of a still-raging pandemic, the bleak sensation of being distant from those we love for the sake of those we love.

For millions of people in this country, Jesus this year comes amid the winter of political discontent, the bleak mix of anger and delusion swirling around a modern-day Herod who can’t let go of the power that corrupts him and is corrupted by him.

For more and more, Jesus comes amid the winter of misbelief, the bleak certainty that God does not exist — or, perhaps worse, that he exists in the shape of an idol like wealth or national greatness.

For too many, he comes amid the winter of injustice, the bleak despair of feeling hated or rejected for something as essential as who they are. Or amid the winter of poverty and homelessness, the bleakness into which Jesus himself came.

So what can we give him, as economically, emotionally, or spiritually impoverished as we are?

Christmas Eve in a Minnesota church three years ago – Creative Commons (Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley)

Today many of us offered the gift of worship, most likely via Zoom, Facebook, or YouTube. (I’m about to stream my third Christmas Eve service.) But as the author of Christianity Today’s Book of the Year wrote today in the New York Times, such virtual “religious services are fundamentally inadequate… an indictment of the very idea of what we look for in church, and a chance to realign our perspective. That is because even in-person services are, in a sense, inadequate.” For worship of any kind seeks “to usher finite people into the presence of someone we believe is infinite. What hymn or sermon can capture that? We are chasing the wind. There are fits and starts, hints of something at the edge of our perception, but not the thing itself.”

Yet, Esau McCaulley concludes, we continue to worship because “We are attempting to encounter God and, in so doing, find ourselves, possibly for the first time.”

Both discoveries are transformative.

At Christmas, we worship a God whom heaven cannot hold “nor Earth sustain,” who took flesh and dwelled among us. And he still does, amid the bleaknesses of our various winters.

But in the process, that God sends us out, to find ourselves amid the bleaknesses of other people’s winters.

For the sake of evangelism, surely. Rosetti gets this much wrong: what the shepherds give Jesus is not a lamb (he is the Lamb), but their willingness to make “known what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17). So too, we can leave amazed all who hear of Jesus’ birth from us.

But let me suggest that we do more than tell a story. Let us live it out.

The nativity scene at that same church…

As Kristin Du Mez wrote this morning at The Anxious Bench, Christmas reminds us that the good news of the Christian gospel is that “the savior of the world subverted human expectations. And as the apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Philippians, followers of this Christ are called to do likewise,” to share “the same mindset” as the messiah who “humbled himself” to the point of death, the king of kings (British and otherwise) who “took the very nature of a servant” (Phi 2:5-8).

The first Christ-follower to share that mindset was the Christ-bearer herself. Having long since agreed to let her life be according to God’s word, Mary gave to Jesus (“whom cherubim / Worship night and day”) the humble essentials that Rosetti names in the verse most hymnals omit: “A breastful of milk / And a mangerful of hay.” She fed and cared for the helpless child whom she one day expected to lift up the lowly and fill “the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).

So this Christmas, may the same mindset be in us. Poor as we are, let us give Jesus what we can: our hearts. Then let us give the poor, in substance and spirit, what we can: our service.

Second Day of Christmas>>