In the bleak midwinter, frost 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, long ago.
–In The Bleak Midwinter
I have a Japanese maple tree in my front yard. I adore it. It’s classy. Well-sculpted. And it turns the most gorgeous shade of burnt red come late fall.
Right now it is rather bare, the beautiful red having turned ordinary winter brown, the leaves thinning out, and the gnarled trunk and twisted branches made plain as a result. I somehow love it in this stage, too. Perhaps because I know it tells me winter is coming. It hasn’t quite, to Kentucky–we’ve had some cold days. Even a short ice storm. But the true still, dead quiet of winter has yet to arrive. And despite how crazy everyone I know thinks I am for this, I crave it.
Mostly because I think it has something to teach us–the desolate landscape, the stark branches etched against a grey dusk, the air so cold it seems to silence the earth itself.
I think it has something to teach us about pain. About what it means to be at our most vulnerable. About stripping down to the very basics of what makes us who we are so that we might remember what matters most. I think it has something to teach us about waiting. About living in the current state of dark stillness until something new and wondrous has space to make itself known, until the days lengthen once again into firefly twilights and we remember what the sun feels like beating down warm on our shoulders.
Nothing forces the frenzy of our lives to slow down like a good, deep snow. I know, I know–I say this from a point of luxury–a warm home, plenty of resources–but perhaps that’s part of my point. I recognize my immense fortune more readily in winter. I’m free to revel in a snow day. Free to see the poetry in the bareness around me. Free to wonder what it is this season of dry, crunchy, iron-cold greyness might have to teach me about setting aside that which has been so that that which will be has room to spread its wings and usher in the promise that spring brings of all things new.
I am, for the first time in a very long time, not responsible for anything Advent-related on a Sunday morning this year. It is a waiting time for me, too–time between jobs, time between the calendar years, time between what has been and what will be. And last night I heard the words to my most favorite Christmas song, being sung by a group of teenagers, and I felt a familiar lump rise in my throat and tears dimming the corners of my eyes.
In the bleak midwinter…
It’s so easy to see the bleak. Around our world. In our own communities. In our own lives. It’s so easy to feel the stress of this time of year, the expectations to be merry, dammit, and find the perfect present and throw the most Pinterest-ready party closing in on us in ways we sometimes don’t even realize.
But what I know is this. The road to Christmas…to Emmanuel, God-with-us, is long. And winding. And it never goes quite as we expected it to or prepared for it to. And I remembered this today when Facebook, that most blessing-and-curse of all social media, reminded me that two years ago today, my Curly Girl and I were making a gingerbread house. An expensive, delicious, edible one. Purchased at Whole Foods after three other stores failed to have what we were after. Real gingerbread. Real icing. Decadent candy.
Her father had died just a few months prior, and I had spent most days wondering how in the world I would help her face Christmas. And I would have driven all over Kentucky that night, and blown my entire month’s grocery budget, to find the gingerbread house she was imagining, so determined I was to help her know even the tiniest bit of Christmas joy.
Fast forward two years and here we are. Hearts still aching some days, but joy intact. By the blessed grace of a God I do not even begin to understand, but that I believe has been with us every single step of the way. Loving us, holding us safe, and helping her see, in myriad ways, that she will never, no matter what, be alone.
Life will be, some days, some seasons, some years, so very bare, my friends. So dark. And hopeless. So twisted and unsure.
But the certainty of Christmas is that God cares enough to come and be among us. To come and dwell in our hearts in the most unlikely of ways. To show up. To be present. Even when our hearts are breaking and we cannot find the strength to believe that one day it will be okay again.
Until the barren landscape has once again sprung into life so beautifully new.
Wait, my friends. Wait. It is coming.