Advent Week 4: Melancholy Christmas

gemini viiIt was fifty years ago, December 1965, when Gemini VII was finishing its record-breaking 14-day mission orbiting the earth. Astronauts James Frank Borman and James Lovell requested that mission control play a Christmas song for them, Bing Cosby’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light beams.
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams

The song falls into the category sometimes called “melancholy Christmas.” It speaks to the lost spirit of Christmas, claiming that Christmas happiness and joy is only an illusion, only a dream.

Christmas is not a happy time for everyone, even for many faithful Christians. Sometimes we are acutely aware of our losses, of those who are not here with us. 

Christina RossettiChristina Rossetti was a member of the famous Rossetti family. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became a celebrated artist during this period, the late 19th century. Christina was born in London, but her family was Italian. Her father was a university professor, but died early and left the family in great financial distress. She thus grew up in a very educated and cultured but very poor family. In her poetry, it can be seen that she longed to marry and become a mother, but she spurned two men who apparently loved her deeply because of her very strict religious beliefs. She was a devout evangelical. She sacrificed love for faith. Her health declined for many years, eventually causing her to be housebound. She died from cancer in 1894, only 64 years old.

Her Christmas poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was written sometime before 1872, before the worst of her health problems, but was not published until after her death in 1904. In this striking poem, one can sense her loneliness and disappointment with life.

In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, long ago.

Life is hard and cold. Snow and winter is unending. The only way to describe it is “bleak.” Although Rossetti portrays this as “long ago,” one senses that it is a present reality for her, and for her readers. As Amy Grant once sang, “Life’s hard!”  It can seem like misfortune piles on top of misfortune. We moan for loneliness, for our melancholy.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Although Rossetti’s faith in the glorious nature of her God is strong, the reality of this world is harsh. There is a great contrast here between the two Advents of the Christ. His second Advent, the second coming, would be with power and renewal. But the first Advent was stark and humble. It was at a bleak time in a stable. Rossetti does not try to explain this, but allows the paradox to stand, “The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” Such is the mystery of the incarnation.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ birth is continued in these verses. Rossetti pictures the deserved worship and acclaim due to the Son of God, and given to him by unimaginable hoards of angels and archangels. Despite the invisible presence of these heavenly beings, it is quiet in the stable. The animals make their contented sounds. The only “worship” given the newborn king is the greatest thing in all the earth, the kiss of his mother.

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.

One can sense the lost motherhood of Rossetti at this point. She wants to give something to the precious babe. She cannot emulate the rich Wise Men, or even the humble shepherds. She is poor, and would never have even modest wealth to lavish on the Savior. She is left with but one gift that has any significance: her all, her very being, her heart.

Christmas will doubtlessly be both a sad and happy time for you. I have two dear friends I am praying for who will celebrate the first Christmas without their beloved mother. I know what that is like. But even if your Christmas is melancholy, please, please don’t turn away from the Christ. Give him your heart. Even in the bleakest times, we can find joy. The joy of the Gospel often comes through the darkness of the blues.

Give him your heart!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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