Bleakness and Beauty
In the bleak midwinter, frost 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.
On December 27th, we went to the the graves of my late husband and my grandparents. It would have been my grandmother’s 111th birthday. Diane, Bill’s sister, was along; she hadn’t been out to South Dakota since her brother had been buried.
We drove on the county road to the cemetery, the groundsnow swirly across the prairie, the sky shining bright blue, and as I turned the van into the graveyard, I found myself humming Christine Rossetti’s poem set to Gustav Holst’s Christmas tune, In the Bleak Midwinter.
Does it ever happen to you that you discover what you are thinking when you discover what you are humming?
We had packed some felt Danish hearts that the children and I made, along with some Danish Aalborg Akvavit.
And so, car parked but left running, we tumbled out into the snow, snow on snow. It was up to Else’s knees.
“O.K., Babygirl,” I said, “can you dig our snow hole?” So she bent down and burrowed until she saw grass. This is an adapted routine; usually we dig holes in the ground by the tombstone to bury artwork, cookies, and important trinkets, but, well, the earth stood hard as iron.
“Else and Karl, each of you now hold onto the handle of the heart, and let’s place it in!” So Else’s mitten grabbed, Karl’s mitten guided, and down it went into the snow, where Else quickly covered it back up.
And then I handed Diane the Sue Bee Honey container with the Akvavit (which means, by the way, ‘water of life’). Joking that maybe we had in our hands the “quicker lifter-upper,” she poured it into the snow, a liquid blessing and prayer.
Because 10° tends to temper the compulsion to sentimentality, I brought Karl back to the warm van, where he and Diane stayed while Else and I trudged through the snow; Danish heart in her hands, Danish Akvavit in mine, to perform the same ritual for Grandma and Grandpa Madsen. Then we threaded through our tracks back to the car, hats down, collars up, grateful that in infinite wisdom both chosen sets of graves are close to the road.
This carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, haunts me–I think it is my favorite, at least the first verse–because of its melancholy tune and somber words. It’s almost as if it hints toward the end of the tale of Jesus’ birth, and I am glad for that bit of honesty in a season where we pretend that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
And as we stood at Bill’s grave, my children smiling in the snow, the ordinariness of this extraordinary scene struck me, and all the while I found myself continuing to hum Rossetti’s/Holst’s music.
It was almost amusing, as Christmas, so often depicted as serene in other carols and art and story and yearnings, was visited in my home more (before, during, and even yet the last two days) by stomach flu and fevers, as by angels and archangels.
And in these freezing moments, I was reminded that parents, when we choose to have babies, are not only explicitly choosing that a new one be born (with the accompanying joy and expectation bound up with the promise of new life), but implicitly that this new one would of course also suffer numerous griefs and illnesses and regrets, and also die.
(I don’t know of a single “baby shower” since where myrrh, an embalming oil, has been offered.)
And so into this bleakness, this sure promise that there will be death and frozen hopes, Christians believe that Immanuel, God-with-us, showed up.
And lest we forget, we also believe that Immanuel entered into a world with stark blue skies, shimmering snow squalls, children making gifts with warm hands, and good, strong, magnificent, celebratory drink.
God takes it all on.
Blessed be this season of incarnationality, this time where birth and death, hearts and vomit, beauty and ice, promise and bleakness, meet.
I have rarely heard it said (or read it), but it is true that when we plan a family, bring children into the world that they are bound to facing the “problem of evil’ in many of its ugly versions. As far as I know, the Christian faith does not have an answer for the problem of evil, but it does have a “response’ to it–all bound up in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and especially the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Thanks for the realism of this column. Your visit to the snowy graves was meanigful (what a euphemism–meaningful??)–it made me weep within. Your turn to a “God with us Hope” was also helpful. My little great-grandson (21/2) has survived two brain surgeries and seems to be doing well. How we prayed for him. Your experience of grief and faith has strengthened me.
Wesley D. Tracy
I so appreciate your stated tension between “answer” and “response.” I make a point of letting people know that if they come to OMG for theological conversation, they may get an answer, but much more probably a response.
My heart goes out to you and your family concerning your grandson’s brain surgeries. It is so uniquely difficult, these traumas of the brain, because there is no clear prototype, no obvious progression, like in a broken arm, or even terrible cancer. The ambiguity of every moment is paradoxically sheer anguish and possible hope.
I am thankful that you are inspired by my story; let me be the first to tell you that I am a tired (but contented and blessed) mama, a broken woman, and a person glad for grace and compassion. Anything you may glean from me is in fact another instance of grace and God working through troubled waters!
Peace to you and yours.
Thank you, Anna. This is a gorgeous meditation on this bitter-sweet carol – and on life’s bleak midwinter days. The stark interposing of “iron” and “stone” into the story that we usually associate with “mangers” and cuddly lambs is powerful. It jars me out of sentimentality into reality – the really real kind of reality.
And yes. It happens to me all the time that I discover my thinking in my humming!
Thank you, Bill.
Coming from you, that means a lot.
And I’m glad that I am not the only one who learns what they are really feeling when they listen to their hums.
A few months back when I was on my way to my first radiation treatment, I realized that I was humming, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…..calling, ‘O sinner, come home!'”
I turned on the radio.
You were right to send me to these blogs, Anna. Thank you. My favourite line in that hymn is”Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain” — a reminder that God-with-us is simply so much bigger and greater than we can imagine.
Blessings, peace and sunshine,
This carol touches deep chords within me. Music offers grace beyond words. Thank you for your lovely meditation… We do indeed bring our babies into a world of sure suffering, confusion, loss, and death, but still our soul’s reach out beyond that to a world of beauty, hope, and grace.
Thank you, Anna, for your wisdom and understanding. These blogs on your pages are awesome. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” really touched me as I feel I can understand those words somewhat growing up in northern SD. I, too, had stood in the cemetery in deep snow and felt the chill……yet, an unusual warmth, too.
Best wishes for OMG.