Winter months mark anniversaries of family loss for me, especially this year after my sister’s death. As I approach Advent, the words of two writers haunt me—much like Dickens’ ghosts. I’ve learned to pay attention when this happens, for although I long to chase them away, I need to welcome these mental visitors and what they have to say.
The first who came is a passage from Isaiah: “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (40:3 NAB).
The second is Christine Rossetti’s poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which has become one of my favorite Christmas carols. Rossetti describes Christ’s appearance in a frigid world of wind and earth hard as iron, water like stone. No winter wonderland of jingling bells and laughing children here, but a winter wasteland, a barren landscape shrouded in fallen snow.
There are reasons we celebrate Christmas in December—near the winter solstice both honored and feared by ancient peoples—instead of during lambing season when the biblical experts tell us Jesus’ birth most likely occurred. But in northern climes, the result is spiritually profound: Emmanuel comes in bleak times. In the midst of some of the hardest months we endure, in months marking my own grief and emptiness, God is with us, with me.
Being frozen is an apt description for how we feel, how I feel.
For this Midwesterner, winter is a good metaphor for the spiritual desert spoken of by Isaiah and others. Many life challenges and transitions thrust us into a wasteland where we question past decisions, feel empty, or lack energy for the old ways of living and praying and being. Being frozen is an apt description for how we feel, how I feel. Christmas, with its carols and admonitions to be merry, may only increase the frozenness, as do the long nights and days bereft of sun.
Rossetti’s poem speaks of two profound gifts. In the second stanza, Mary, rather than join the angels’ songs of worship, silently kisses the child given her. In the final stanza, the narrator frets about what she can give this child. Poorer than the shepherds who could at least bring their lambs and certainly not wise like the Magi, the narrator gives what she can, a most precious gift because very dear to her. She gives her heart.
The heart and a kiss, what to make of these gifts?
Unlike the romantic notion of the heart as a source of love and passion, biblical writers understood the heart as the self at its deepest level, as the source of all energy. However, the heart’s typical response is to protect itself, to close against vulnerability and pain, worry and exhaustion, fear and doubt. The result is that we also close to God, living within a shell. Closed hearts may become hardened—violent, arrogant, brutal—but most of us experience milder symptoms: self-preoccupation, for instance, or a critical and judgmental approach to others, a lack of gratitude or compassion. The Bible portrays compassion not as pity, but as the ability to feel what another feels. So a closed heart may be charitable, but it doesn’t feel others’ suffering.
Entering the wasteland, enduring a heart iron-hard under all that snow, is necessary.
We might assume what we need is God’s forgiveness, but what we really need is to have the heart opened. The Bible doesn’t suggest that Israel’s bondage in Egypt is their fault, yet they still need liberating. So God led them into a wasteland, and their years in that hostile place slowly, painfully transformed them from slave to free. As the rest of Isaiah 40 reminds, we alone are not capable of transformation. Only God has the power to renew and create, to level the rough and fill the void.
I now know that entering the wasteland, enduring a heart iron-hard under all that snow, is necessary. We each have such an experience at some time, maybe many times. Only after the bitter cold has cracked open the hulls do the first tender shoots of life spring forth in the melting rains and mud of spring.
Giving the heart is a radical act. It is a refusal to fight the frozen fingers squeezing us; a refusal to ignore or lessen the pain; a refusal even to try to understand it. I’ve learned if I undergo the desert experience involuntarily, it can crush me. If voluntarily, it can be liberating. Giving the heart, my dearest treasure even though frozen and closed, is the voluntary acceptance of the desert. I am giving all of who I am.
Kissing is the mystics’ metaphor for union with God. St. Gertrude said when God seems absent, recall that just before we kiss our beloved, we close our eyes. God’s apparent absence is simply that poignant pause in the dark before the loving touch. Perhaps the darkness is actually God’s protection. If we knew what is required for the transformation of our hearts, we would be overwhelmed and might give up. So God works secretly within.
Mary’s silence is powerful practice.
Mary must have experienced confusion and darkness as she struggled to understand and give birth to Emmanuel. Yet in that moment, she silently embraced not only the child, but all that the child would require of her, trusting that God was there, a mere breath’s space away, even in the aridity and frozenness.
Mary’s silence is powerful practice. Silence isn’t avoiding conversation with God, but is a different kind of conversation: a pregnant, prayerful wordlessness; a stilling of the mind; a clearing of clutter; an opening of the eyes and ears for whatever God reveals in and through whatever ways God chooses. This, I think, is what Isaiah meant by “make straight the way of the Lord.”
Many are uncomfortable with silence, filling it with words, busying themselves with activities. They make the mistake of thinking prayer is primarily an activity of the mind when the best prayer is an activity of the heart, welling up from its center.
If you live in a place with cold winters, take advantage of winter’s snowy silences. Seek the space and time to search the heart and listen. Notice an appetite for overstimulation—for things, people, entertainment, projects; and on a deeper level, with self-interest, desires, self-righteousness. Let winter slow you. Become less a slave to impulse; notice what’s in front of you, including hurts and fears.
Cultivate a sense of intrigue, as if watching someone else. Observe without judgment, neither blaming your nor others for thoughts and feelings that surface. You may discover patterns that you need to be aware of—both those that are life-giving and those that are life-sapping.
As you pay attention to the life you’re living, become aware of the new life God nourishes within you. Make small, intentional choices to reshape your life to reflect God’s love in a fruitful way.
What I wish for you—and for me—this winter is greater calm and willingness to let the cold do its work in the heart, more compassion for self and others, greater simplicity. Even in bleak days of darkness and loss, may we kiss Emmanuel, the culmination of our longing, the one to whom we give our hearts, the God who was, who is, and will ever be.