Monday, 8 December 2008

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan: a chilly take on the Advent hope

frost in shade

Yesterday was one of those stunning winter days when low angled sunlight and bitingly low temperatures bring intense clarity to our seeing. The deep frost that had formed during the long, bitterly cold night was in a day-long tussle with the feeble warmth of the winter sun. In shadow, the frost was winning.

On the ground, wherever the light was blocked by taller vegetation, the leaves of low-lying plants were covered in a spectacularly beautiful array of ice crystals. The details of each surface were brought into sharp relief by the sub-zero airbrushing of frost. What was normally unseen, the moisture in the air, was now visible, and itself brought the intricacies of the plants leaves and stems into plain view.

frost covered nettleAs a metaphor for our reflection on the realities of Advent it seems to me that this line of imaginative thinking has much to offer. Advent speaks into the experience of long dark times, frozen expectations, and the hope-denying psychological hypothermia which lies in the unseen bitter truths of our being. Advent, like the low winter sunlight, lays these things bare. For a short while, the brief daylight hours of bleak spiritual midwinter can bring fresh ways of seeing the who and how of what we are. The frost speaks of the invisible, usually hidden realities which come sharply into focus on the surfaces of our daily lives during Advent.

Frozen, we long for light and warmth.

frost covered plantAnd at the heart of our faith tradition is the promise that such longing can, indeed should, turn to expectation. Midwinter people, chilled to the very bone, look to the horizon and the dawning of the one who is the light of the world.

The lyrics of Madonna's song 'Frozen' point to our chilly, bitterly cold experiences and perceptions, and to the mournful midwinter waste of a frozen, frost-bound heart.

You only see what your eyes want to see
How can life be what you want it to be
You're frozen
When your heart's not open

You're so consumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret 
You're broken
When your heart's not open

Mmmmmm, if I could melt your heart
Mmmmmm, we'd never be apart
Mmmmmm, give yourself to me
Mmmmmm, you hold the key

frost melting on plantRead in Advent these words resonate with our faith expectations too: they offer the promise of warmth and the melting away of that terrible spiritual frost. They speak of relationship, trust and promise. And this gets us very close to the hope offered in Advent and to the intention of godly love which is both real and promised to all frost-bound, frozen people everywhere.

And this Sunday's reading from the Isaiah tradition (61:1-3) is at the very centre of such Christian expectation:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

Here is the promise of light and warmth and of the dawning of the sun upon a frozen world. The picture opposite  illustrates well the now and not-yet nature of this for us. The sun has melted the frost from the uppermost leaves of the nettle. Lower down in the shade and shadow, it remains frost-bound and freezing.

I think this is what Advent looks like, feels like, in the deep midwinter time, when we long for the light. Once again, the Isaiah tradition nails it superbly:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined.

I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them
. (42:16)


  1. I really like the last image, the way that the sunlight has touched parts of the plant while the rest remains in frost and shadow...

    today it really helped me to remember that hope is always present whether we are awre of it or not, and it inspired a poem

    thank you.

  2. I would like to experience a wintry Advent at least once. The imagery makes so much sense.