This solstice day calls for a wintry sermon. We may affect not to care for winter, but painters and writers have always loved it. Here is one of the great English romantic poets.
All seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
That is the beautiful last stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ written in 1798. ‘The secret ministry of frost’ is one of those happy phrases that once heard, you never forget. But I love that conclusion for its embrace of the entire circle of the seasons. As the earth turns on its axis and we journey through this shortest day of the year, our thoughts inevitably turn to the promise of spring’s light and the greening of the earth, the happy warmth of summer we begin to travel towards tomorrow. It focuses our minds on the order of time running its course, the turning of the seasons, the human cycles of birth and death and all that comes in between.
Advent makes us think about first and last things. That can mean the order of time that is marked by equinox and solstice, by feast day and fast, and by the times and seasons that hold memory or significance for us. But at a deeper level, it means what is of first and what is of ultimate meaning for us and for all humanity. And this is the real purpose of Coleridge’s poem. He is in a reverie, musing by his fireside on how, outside, ‘the Frost begins its secret ministry’ silently, mysteriously, without the help of wind or weather. Inside all is warmth and peacefulness, a calm gently fluttering flame inducing a meditation about what it means to be alive. I guess that one of the gifts of Advent, even this late, is to urge on us how important it is to stop, ponder the wonder of things, the sheer gift of being human, and aware, and capable of thought and generosity and love.
Coleridge has a specific focus for his wonder, for he is not alone by his fireside.
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes!
His infant son prompts thoughts about his own childhood and upbringing – not an unmixed blessing for Coleridge, sent away from home, deprived of his beloved nature, alienated from his mother. He wants better things for his own child, above all that he will be at home in a beautiful world, and at one with the God who made it and is present in its majesty and mystery, the Creator who will himself shape this precious human life:
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
His prayer is that ‘all seasons shall be sweet to thee’: in youth and in age, for better or worse, happy or sad, disappointed or fulfilled, walking in darkness or seeing great light. What do we not long and pray for when we think of our own children or grandchildren when they are little and still a source of wonder to us? We gaze on them in awe and tenderness, and ask ourselves and God what will become of them when they grow up. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t find ourselves gazing far into the future, hoping that our children will be safe in this precarious world we have brought them into, praying that they will live long and well and happily. What wouldn’t we do to protect them from damage or harm? What wouldn’t God do? we imagine. For each birth, each infancy, each dawning of awareness is a sunrise for the entire human family as well as for a child’s loving parents, family and friends. It is why the hurt, the abuse children suffer at the hands of trusted adults is so terrible, so outrageous. All creation cries out against it, this massacre of innocent children, this massacre of innocence itself.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we contemplate Blessed Mary and her vocation to be the mother of the Lord. We acclaim her, as Elizabeth did: Ave Maria: ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. It isn’t to diminish the force of those words to say that this is the response of every new parent where a birth is waited for with expectancy and joy, like Elizabeth herself looking forward to the birth of her own son. Happy are you, happy is your child, happy your family and community! Mary could not love her Infant more than any other mother loves. She loved, and Joseph loved with her, giving all they had so that their Child would grow strong and flourish. Even when they heard Simeon speak about the shadow that would fall across the holy family one day, the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart, it did not change anything. They loved him just the same. Their hopes and longings for the future were just the same. And like Coleridge, you imagine Mary and Joseph gazing at their firstborn in wonder, filled with thankfulness that God has brought them to this point, offering these tiny hands and feet to God, asking only that he will mould his spirit and shape his life so that he will grow ‘in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and humanity’. And asking that as his feet touch the earth, a new dawn will bathe the world in its sunrise, a light for all nations.
At each solstice, the Precentor chooses a hymn for the year’s turning. Christ whose glory fills the sky, Christ the true, the only Light. On this day when the sun scarcely clears the horizon, and its warmth is extinct, when darkness is long and spirits low, when nature sleeps, and storm and frost have their way on the earth, it is then that we are roused to pray all the more fervently in the spirit of Advent: Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night; Dayspring from on high, be near; Daystar, in my heart appear! All of human life is gathered up in this yearly metaphor of the darkness and cold that will one day be banished as the light lengthens and the warmth strengthens. And in four days’ time, metaphor will become reality. Like the poet, we shall gaze in wondering love upon the beloved Infant, and see in him all grace and truth, all hopes and longings met, and the secret ministry of frost will be past, and hearts will sing, and all seasons will become sweet for us.
O God, by whose command the order of time runs its course: forgive our impatience, perfect our faith, and help us to have a good hope because of your word; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Durham Cathedral, Midwinter’s Day, 21 December 2014. Luke 1.39-55