“Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” ~~~Luke 1:39-45
One of my favorite Christmas carols is the old English carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It is a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti, commonly performed as a Christmas carol. The poem was published, under the title “A Christmas Carol”, in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. In 1906 Gustav Holst set it to music under the title “Cranham” and this remains a popular version today. However, an anthem setting by Harold Darke composed in 1909 is also widely performed by choirs, and in 2008 was named “the best Christmas carol” in a poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts.
I like both settings because I love the poem itself, which tells in a few short verses the whole of the Christmas story. The winter solstice is also one of my favorite times of year. While it is indeed the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the dawning of coming of Spring, and the promise of New Life. The days grow longer bit by bit. As a child I often could be found out flying a kite in the snow.
Perhaps because this has been such a dark year for most of us here in California, with the pandemic and the terrible fires this summer, I am very much looking forward to this particular annual passage through the darkness into the Light which this year falls on December 21st: also known as Midwinter.
It is also worth noting that in very early Christian tradition, March 25th is the day on which Mary received the news that she would bear a child. Nine months later is December 25th, thus giving us one reason why the year 336 is the first year in which Christmas is celebrated on that day (during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor). It is with eager anticipation that we await the coming of the Light into the world “in the bleak midwinter.”
Prayer on the Solstice: “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.”
Fr. Joseph Jacobs, TOCCUSA, United Methodist Church of Santa Cruz, California