21 December 2011 a post by Steve Hollinghurst

In the bleak midwinter – a reflection for winter solstice

Tales, reflections and activities should perhaps fit their season. There are short words, vigorous tales and much activity for the warn days of summer; longer words, reflective tales and stillness for the cold days of winter. This is such a slow reflection for bleak mid-winter days, to be pondered by the fire and with knowledge that while some have fuel enough others struggle to keep warm; while some have company others are alone. These are mid-winter realties to remember.

When Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti wrote the carol ‘in the bleak mid-winter’. I doubt she was thinking of historical accuracy to Jesus birth.  It does occasionally snow in Bethlehem in winter or spring, though not enough to be deep and crisp and even – but that carol is about the very different climate of the Czech Republic!  However, we have no clear knowledge of when Jesus was born or indeed of where, though the tradition of Bethlehem is very early. Christmas is celebrated on the 25th December not because that was Jesus birthday but for the very reason that it is in ‘the bleak mid-winter’, the date of the Solstice in the then Roman calendar. The Roman Emperor Constantine who was the first to adopt Christianity as an Imperial religion is the most likely source of that date. It was the festival of Sol Invicta, the unconquered sun, and marked the mid-winter solstice as the turn towards the days lengthening after the shortest day. For the same reason other Romans around the time of the early church had adopted this as the birthday for the Iranian sun deity Mithras.  The themes of mid-winter and the death and rebirth of the sun where powerful and by adopting them both Mithraism and Christianity helped communicate what these two newer faiths believed and practiced.

The Winter Solstice has a wide tradition as can be seen via a browse of the Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice This .is a seasonal tradition, not a date based one, for obvious reasons. People in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate the winter solstice in June. What in spite of that one notices, is how much the world wide historic commemoration of mid-winter has in common. Some of this is no doubt the reality of agricultural communities faced with the hard ground, cold and living off the stores of the harvest now well past. And in the bleak mid-winter comes the turning point, the move towards spring and away from winter, towards new life and away from death. And so often this is accompanied with stories of the death and re-birth of the sun. Often this is part of large annual cycle portrayed as a cosmic love relationship between a sun god who dies and is reborn and an earth goddess whose life shifts through the seasons in a dance with her beloved. This cycle of life is not just about the fertile and fallow seasons of nature but of human life cycles also; of infancy, youth, maturity and old age. Winter as the season of old age becomes a time for wisdom, the fire-side story, reflection and the remembrance of loved ones past away. Our lives need such rhythms and pauses; times of vigour and activity and times to be slow and reflect. These are not just seasonal cycles to observe and we are wise to pay attention to them.

magi

In placing the Christmas story within this profound story of nature’s seasons and human birth, life and death, the Christian story becomes deeply bound with the story of life and death and the romance of deity and creation. In doing so the cycle of the Christian year enters a creative dance with the natural year of Pagan festival. This does something powerful to the Christmas narrative; the birth of the vulnerable baby becomes fused with the story of death and resurrection which the bleak mid-winter points to, standing as the place of turning from winter towards spring; catching up the interval of ‘Good’ Friday and Easter in the moment of Christmas. This is caught powerfully in the part of the Christmas story that involved wise men from the east who read the stars; the Epiphany or divine revelation. They bring three gifts that point to the drama of the whole cycle. Frankincense the incense of the temple, of divine presence born in frail infant flesh. Gold for a royal king, the sun in full orb. Myrrh for embalming and the moment of death. Indeed how much do such signs, as we think of the coming in the bleak mid winter, mark Jesus as out not only as triple God but triple Goddess? A parallel not unfitting for the one who bears the divine image in human form; female and male in God’s likeness.

Yet if the solstice story interprets and re-interprets the Christmas story lodged in its mid-winter home, so the Christmas story is also transforming of its host. It intersects the cyclical story of the seasons with linear story of history. The event of a point in time between creation and new creation interacts with the seasonal remembrance of the cycle of death and re-birth that is fundamental to all life and in doing so points to a new life beyond death, a new creation in which the harmony of life lives in a different relationship. In this the linear and cyclical create a spiral dance of life constantly renewed yet constantly evolving; a renewal of life that is also a transformation of life. In us in all creation become that which we are called to be in God.

So let us turn full circle and revisit the bleak mid-winter with Rossetti. Amid the earth hard as iron and water like a stone long ago, comes not only the moment for Mary the mother of Jesus to play her part in the eternal love dance with a kiss but our part also as we enter the stable with shepherds and wise men. It is not our story to offer lambs or prophetic triple gifts, but simply this, to offer our hearts in the spiral dance of love to the divine and the beloved creation fused in the divine made flesh. In doing so we not only honour the dance between the cycles of nature and the journey to a new creation in the death and resurrection of Christ. We also become the place in which that drama plays out; the Christ born in flesh long ago and living in Jesus of Nazareth is re-born in our flesh and lives in us, we become also the place for the death and re-birth of the solstice; the place of the renewal of life, the hope of creation.

In the bleak mid-winter come into the places of despair and ignite the flame of hope
Come into places on earth where the iron rod oppresses and bring release
Come into hearts of stone and bring healing warmth
In the gentle fall of snow may wisdom fall upon wisdom
May our past, our present and out future join in the spiral dance of life
And may our hearts and lives become home to your coming.
Be born in us a fresh each day, each year, each mid-winter
That we may be able to be with those in death and life
To bless all creation throughout its seasons
And be ourselves those who take up our cross in hope of new life
That the life of God may live in all, bless all, renew all for now and for eternity.

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