Thursday, December 10, 2015

In the Bleak Midwinter

Robert Heylmun shares this essay from 2006.

 It isn’t mid-winter actually. In fact winter only began yesterday but already the nation is up to its uh… self in snow or rain water or fog or a combination of these. Even here in San Diego we awoke to leaden skies and rain in parts of the county and it has to be said that rain in San Diego is nearly as dangerous as black ice can be in say, Chicago. San Diegans are so unused to rainy freeways that they believe the best tactic is to ignore the weather and drive as if it didn’t exist. One overturned camper this morning on one of the approaches to Interstate 5, so far.

The Christmas carol “In the Bleak Mid-winter”, words by Cristina Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst, romanticizes the season that leads to Christmas. It’s a beautiful tune accompanying a lovely poem, not all that well known perhaps, but welcome and warming nevertheless. That’s a lot to say for Holst in particular, I think, since some of his music (most often heard was something from “The Planets”) was once used merely to announce newscasts and has now generally fallen into the ignominious graveyard of discarded and rarely heard musical works. But this tune of his survives well, preserved in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, and resurrected at Christmas.

We got a real taste of bleak mid-winter last Sunday at St. Paul’s Cathedral when a fire was reported burning in the basement during the morning Eucharist. We were directed to leave the church as quietly and quickly as possible, and since we didn’t see any smoke which might have panicked the congregation, all 300 or so of us got out right away. Eucharist was distributed outside to those who wanted it. We learned later that the fire was intentionally set in a waste basket. I think that news more than the fire itself made us feel very bleak indeed.

St. Paul’s Cathedral sits beside Balboa Park in the center of the city and because the park attracts a wide variety of people who make it their home, the church has born the brunt of some of the more disturbed among the park dwellers. Once some years ago, a crazy person hurled a brick through one of the stained glass windows. No particular reason except that the church was there. Well, no particular reason that anyone could easily get to, I suppose.

It cannot be denied that the Church (note the capital) represents some very negative things to some very disgruntled people, especially during this time of the year. The Episcopal Church in particular often symbolizes wealth and privilege to the down and out, and a building like St. Paul’s becomes a presence that contrasts those perceived differences in social and economic status. This perception is, of course, mistaken. A quick look at the cathedral’s budget and income would reveal how it always is in need of funds, has very little beyond its immediate income, and is probably no richer than anyone else passing by.

As distressing as the fire was on Sunday morning, things went on with the kind of dignity and certainty that describes the attitude of the congregation of St. Paul’s. We left puzzled naturally, but we left knowing that all would be well. That evening when I returned for Lessons and Carols, the church building was dark and I was handed a candle as I went in. The fire had somehow made the electrical system unsafe and we would have this service in the comparative dark. No organ, no lights except for candles and a few small battery lights for the musicians. In we went, found our seats, and the service began. “Once in Royal David’s City” sounded even more ethereal in the dark as a solo choir boy sang the first verse. The procession came up the main aisle, singing its way to the chancel. On it went, undaunted and unafraid, without hesitation, lighting the way, bidding us all to join in on the last verses.

For those who think we do not have bleak mid-winters in San Diego, let me assure you that we do but we don’t let them get us down. As sad as it was to think that someone would want to harm this beautiful church and perhaps the people in it, a conquering joy supplanted that sadness last Sunday night in the candlelit nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

At present, nothing could look brighter than this season of expectation and joy. If I haven’t already done so, let me wish you at least an equal share of that joy now and in your future days, and most immediately, a very merry Christmas.

(Dean Richardson quoted the bold text in his Christmas Day sermon, 2006.)

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