During a homily this past Advent, my pastor referenced the 19th-century poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” by English poet Christina Rossetti. He spoke about its perennial relevance for Catholics living in New England: Each year at Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation, which is the subject of the poem.
But at Christmas we also find ourselves preparing for midwinter, the half-marathon marker of the long, winter season that starts a few weeks before Thanksgiving and doesn’t let up until April (though that month is often marked by one final blizzard).
Rossetti aptly describes this desolate season: “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.”
Having just survived back-to-back snowstorms and now preparing for a few weeks of below-freezing temperatures, bleak doesn’t begin to cover how I feel being cooped up in an apartment with a caged-in 15-month-old. My recent Amazon search history has been exclusively dedicated to indoor play gyms, though we lack the space for them. A bleak Catch-22.
But this midwinter feels bleak for more serious reasons. We’re suspended between the availability of a vaccine and the distribution of it to the masses. We can almost make out the finish line of the pandemic, yet we anticipate that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their lives before spring.
We watch news crawlers tick off peripheral casualties of the pandemic: teens facing dangerous levels of anxiety, depression and suicide; business owners losing their livelihoods; families being evicted from their homes.
Our political, cultural and ecclesial landscape all feel equally bleak. Despite calls for unity and healing, polarization persists in our discourse, political dealings and even in our church’s leadership. We all seem to be enslaved to what Harvard professor Arthur Brooks calls the “outrage industrial complex” — that web of cable news and social media that keeps us angry, fearful and pointing fingers — and which profits off of our miserable dealings with one another.
It’s a batten-down-the-hatches
kind of winter. But that prospect and posture is hard to face, given that many of us are running on physical and emotional fumes. Spring feels like light-years away.
Perhaps it’s a blessing, then, that the church gives us Lent in midwinter. It’s a season of soul-searching; the gray skies give us no other choice but to turn inward and examine the dark spaces we’d rather not explore.
Despite the ashes and calls for repentance, I have never found Lent to be a frosty, bitter season. The days get longer as we turn toward the sun and the light of Christ awaits us at the Easter Vigil. If we use those 40 days well, they can be the bridge out of the misery of lockdown and isolation, but also out of our online tribal wars and call-out culture.
If this pandemic is a marathon, Lent can be our replenishing station. It can be the period in which we take in the things that will nourish us for the rest of the race and the opportunity to shed the things or habits we no longer need to hold onto.
At the end of her poem, Rossetti muses: “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 him my heart.”
When we make it to the other side of this bleak midwinter, it would be good for our hearts not to be “anesthetized,” as Pope Francis has warned, but made ready to receive the joy of Easter, that eternal spring for which we all wait in hope.