One of the reasons that I am enjoying some of Christina Rosetti's poetry is her melancholy disposition. While the word "melancholy" can mean gloomy or depressed, it also means a sober thoughtfulness, or pensiveness, and as I understand it that is a more traditional and perhaps biblical way to approach Advent. Rosetti seems to capture that in two of my favorite of her poems, the two set to music and sung by everyone from The Kings College Choir to Julie Andrews to Sara McLachlan.
- 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,
- Snow on snow,
(Rosetti, In the Bleak Midwinter)
That "snow on snow, snow on snow" bit of repetition has a way of driving home the bitter cold and hardness of the world, not just the frozen ground but the layer upon layer hardness of life into which Christ was born. And it is hard sometimes. I could even now rattle off a litany of ripple effects of sin --- drought, disease, war, broken families --- abnormalities likely far worse in the 19th Century time in which Rosetti lived. And yet she can still write
Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.
(Rosetti, Love Came Down)
It's not surprising that Rosetti was "soberly thoughtful." While she was born into a well-off London family in 1830, when she was about twelve or so, her family suffered severe financial difficulties because of her father's debilitating physical and emotional illness. At 14 she had a nervous breakdown, and thereafter she suffered from bouts of depression. She came to faith in the Anglican church, perhaps as a result of all her trials, and she was devoted to Christ the remainder of her life. In fact, though she became serious about two men, she married neither, both for religious reasons. She remained unmarried the rest of her life. So, she lived with her mother , and after her mother died, alone. She's not unlike some other hymnwriters or poets whose best work seems to proceed from their most difficult trials.
In the midst of all those cheery Christmas songs, I continue to gravitate to the sobering songs, the ones that acknowledge the reality of sin and the difficulty of waiting. Advent is all about waiting, and it's not over with with the birth. We wait for the promised death of death, for the setting right of all things --- including me.
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
(Rosetti, A Bettter Resurrection, 1879)
That's what we are: fallen leaves, faded leaves, broken bowls. And yet He comes to make us whole, dying so we might live.
Rosetti was serious about faith. It's said that she gave up playing chess because she thought that her wish to win the game had become too strong. She believed that this would be a chance to become a more humble believer. When I read that, I thought it sounded crazy, but then it made me realize how inattentive to my sin I am, how little I think about the passions and motives that drive me.
I don't play chess. But I need more sober attentiveness to my life. I need to make a move.