Summer is gone with all its roses,
Its sun and perfumes and sweet flowers,
Its warm air and refreshing showers
And even Autumn closes.
Yea, Autumn’s chilly self is going,
And winter comes which is yet colder;
Each day the hoar-frost waxes bolder,
And the last buds cease blowing.
The poem above, known as Bitter for Sweet, was written by Christina
Rossetti in the middle of the nineteenth century. It struck me as a perfect poem as our attention turns ever more towards the ending of another year. In eight lines, Rossetti takes us from summer roses through autumn’s ‘chilly self’ and finally to winter’s ‘hoar-frost’. I can think of no other poem which covers the decline of the year with such precision.
In the modern calendar, as autumn shifts into winter, the National and Church year becomes absolutely packed with significant dates. There is Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday to mention a few. On November 16th we have our Christmas Fair. As we enter December, we negotiate the season of Advent and, for us at St Nick’s, we have Birthday Sunday and then all of our Christmas events. It is an intense time.
I know that the helter-skelter of events at the end of the year can be utterly exhausting and draining. We can be left feeling like we’re on constant transmit. By the time Christmas finally arrives we can feel utterly exhausted and end up unable to appreciate one of the most joyous times of the year.
How on earth can we find a way to negotiate this intense time of year and not be left in a state of collapse?
Perhaps, one answer is to try and do less. I suspect that such an approach works for some. I certainly commend it. I have to say that in my own case, especially as the demands on ministry have increased, such a hope feels rather beyond my reach. I do try to take some time out in October and November, just for me, but it is never quite as restful as I should like it to be. The busy round of ministry and parish life requires considerable attention and quite rightly so.
What I do try to maintain throughout the frenetic days of November and December is a discipline of prayer. It is isn’t easy, but prayer can be the difference between being utterly burned out come Christmas Day and having just enough openness to God that I am prepared to receive the great gift of Jesus Christ. Prayer, then, is about sustenance. God offers this deep well from which we are invited to drink. He offers us this water of life freely, but we have to find a way to get there. Prayer, in its many forms, is the way we find our way home to God’s deep well of Living Water.
There are, of course, many forms or techniques of prayer. If you haven’t found something that helps you, or if you want to go deeper, please come and speak to me or one of my clergy colleagues, Andrew or Alan. Margaret Vessey and Alison Mills, our Accredited Lay Ministers, can also be good link people. Our Taizē service, run by Grace, presents another space to meet God. Do also look out for our groups meeting in Advent. This year we shall be looking at the course about the extraordinary film, The Way. Check the parish notices or the website for more information.
Personally, I find hymns and poetry incredibly powerful. Some of you will know that I’ve written an Advent and Christmas book, In the Bleak Midwinter, which takes a different Christina Rossetti poem for each day and reflects on it. It offers a structured way to read poetry in the company of God. I hope some of you might take a closer look.
Ultimately, we need to find ways to pray which nourish us. In finding them, I hope that as Christmas dawns we can appreciate those closing lines of Rossetti’s most famous poem:
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.
All that we have comes from God. To recognise that is to recognise the truth at the heart of the universe. When we bring our offerings before God we are invited to do so with thankful hearts. As we draw towards the great gift of God-With-Us, Jesus Christ, at Christmastime, I hope and pray that each of us can respond to that question, ‘What can I give him?’ with the simple refrain: ‘My heart.’
Have a blessed autumn, Advent and Christmas.