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Essay

The Bleak Heart

By December 5, 2012 No Comments
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Growing up, the season of Advent was always a big deal in my family.  We never failed to have an Advent wreath—which we looked forward to lighting during devotions every night, adding one candle a week until the Christ candle on Christmas day.  Better yet (although dorkily enough, getting to light the candle and use the snuffer after was such an exciting privilege we had to rotate it each day), my mother purchased my brother and sister and I chocolate Advent calendars.  Not a year went by—no matter where we lived—without one.  After dinner, we’d get to see what new shape awaited—and have a visible reminder of the days beginning to wind ever closer to Christmas (and the final surprise hidden behind the cardboard window).  Very sweet.

Now, I can’t be bothered much.  There’s no wreath. I don’t even decorate my house.  Too much work.  Because, for me, Advent coincides with the end of the teaching semester with its seemingly never-ending meetings with colleagues and students, the endless stack of projects and papers that need grading, the whirl and bustle of social events—and commitments like writing this blog.  I just hope to get gifts and grading and traveling and everything else done by the 25th.  Oh, and I certainly don’t need the calories from any more chocolate.   

As I sat in church last week—making a to-do list in my head as the choir sang—I also thought back to the excitement of those long-ago Advents.  And I was reminded of the poem (and hymn) by the fine Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter. 

The poem begins by painting a chilly picture of the desolation of the season—a metaphor, perhaps, for dreary state of our own lives, beleaguered and buried (“snow on snow, snow on snow”) as we are.  It is into this landscape that Christ comes.  Yet Rossetti repeatedly insists that, in Christ’s humility and self-emptying, the cold manger is “enough for him,” or as another carol has it, he is “pleased, as man, with men to dwell.”  Emmanuel, indeed.

Rossetti concludes the poem by asking us to respond in kind.  Not based on what we do (a “shepherd”) or what we know (a “wise man”), but in the totality of ourselves: with our “heart.”

It is good to be reminded that God can find a home in the most meager of places, the “rag and bone shop of the heart,” as Yeats puts it.  I might not have time for a wreath and candles and chocolate, but perhaps—even in taking a brief moment to read this poem—I can find moments too to prepare a little room myself. 

 

 James Taylor’s version

Tine Thing Helseth (Instrumental)

 

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

by Christina Rossetti

 In the bleak mid-winter

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 mid-winter

Long ago.

 

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:

In the bleak mid-winter

A stable-place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ.

 

Enough for Him, whom cherubim

Worship night and day,

A breastful of milk

And a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels

Fall down before,

The ox and ass and camel

Which adore.

 

Angels and archangels

May have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim

Thronged the air,

But only His mother

In her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the Beloved

With a kiss.

 

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.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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