Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 6, 2009

Midwinter Day – Holst & Rosetti Music to Comfort Us

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on 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.

Excerpt of “In the Bleak Midwinter” – hymn/Christmas carol with words by Christina Rosetti, music (1906) by Gustav Holst

It’s Midwinter Day. I don’t know if there’s an official name like this for February 6 on the world’s scientific or church calendars. But if I’ve done my math right, today’s the day of “deepest winter” in the northern hemisphere, exactly halfway between the official start of winter on December 21 and the start of spring on March 22.

Sometimes the veil is lifted, and one can see more clearly. You see, feel, and sense the wondrous reality behind what your eyes alone can see. Just by looking with these “new eyes”, from a reflective, peaceful, prayerful or meditative state, you discover connections between things you didn’t even know had a relationship to each other. Some whiff of Truth just hits you. It can be like a ton of bricks, but more often it’s like being grazed by the wing of a butterfly in flight (which is why silence and solitude are helpful in being able to notice it).

Today I had one of those experiences, as I was feeling melancholy, and reflecting on how winter (for a lot of people, I suspect) is like this very narrow opening in the year (not unlike Jesus’ “narrow gate” into heaven). It’s a period that you have to sort of squeeze through, with a bit of pain involved at times. When I realized after looking at a calendar that today was actually this “halfway” day, I got the chills… but the good kind!

In winter, there’s less light, less warmth, fewer animals scurrying around. Death and hunger and longing simply feel nearer, whether or not actual statistics bear this out. So there’s a “stripping away” aspect of winter. We hunker down and subsist on the essentials, use what we have “stored up” in the past, and set aside summer’s brightness, extravagance and luxury. So winter in climates far from the equator is like a time of severe spiritual discipline, a sort of required fast. The word that the “Bleak Midwinter” hymn uses, twice, is “enough”. Not an excess (of grace, food, whatever),  nor a complete absence of what we need to survive. Just enough.

So it does not surprise me that Gustav Holst (an Englishman with a German name, and one of my favorite composers –especially for his masterwork The Planets) chose to set a haunting and beautiful melody to this particular 1872 Christina Rosetti poem, excerpted above. For Holst was a man inclined to consider the spiritually fulfilling and challenging aspects of music, whether in Hindu spiritualism or a Christian choral song. He saw that music, like winter, can sometimes effortlessly drive us inward or upward, toward something vague but powerful, something or Some One beyond –or deep within– these limited, vulnerable, slightly chilly bodies we inhabit.

 The MIDI version I’m linking to here (with all the words) sounds sort of cheesy, as most MIDI will. But on record– by James Taylor on his 2006 Christmas album, on Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, on Jars of Clay’s Christmas album, and recently on an Olivia Newton-John Christmas album– this song is a lesser-known treasure… not just for Christmas, but for getting through any dark, cold day.

God knows there are bleak times in our lives. It can even be argued that God puts them there, to sharpen and re-focus us on what is essential and beautiful. We are confronted with some darker or more severe kind of beauty, and tempted to insulate and isolate ourselves to avoid pain. Yet pain transforms us. Winter sets the stage for spring. That’s part of the essential importance of the cross. The way out is to bear that pain as gracefully as possible. And with help, which is just under the skin of snow we see, never far away.


Responses

  1. Hi Mark. Sorry it took me so long to follow up and read this. I’ve been crazy busy.

    This line blew me away: “Death and hunger and longing simply feel nearer.” It’s so true.

    I love this song, and I love JT’s version of it.


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