Monday, December 23, 2013

A Hope Carol

 A night was near, a day was near;
  Between a day and night
I heard sweet voices calling clear,
    Calling me:
I heard a whirr of wing on wing,
  But could not see the sight;
I long to see my birds that sing,—
    I long to see.

In "A Hope Carol," Christina Rossetti sings the twilight hopes of Advent. The speaker finds herself in half-light, where ordinary time no longer makes sense: day and night approach at once. The voices she hears--winged voices, heralding joy--are "clear" but invisible. 

I can think of no more fitting poem for the final hours of Advent. We have heard from Scriptures, carols, prophecies, and traditions that joy has come, comes now, and will come again, but what we see so often argues against our hopes. We hear, but we long to see.

Below the stars, beyond the moon,
  Between the night and day,
I heard a rising falling tune
    Calling me:
I long to see the pipes and strings
  Whereon such minstrels play;
I long to see each face that sings,—
    I long to see. 
"Below the stars, beyond the moon" -- now space cavorts and shifts, making room for something that sounds like a fairy tale, or a gospel. The "rising fall tune" is sanguine but not naive, mournful but not despairing. And it calls. It calls us not to some generalized goodwill, but to a desire for intimate and particular love: we long to see "each face that sings."

To-day or may be not to-day,
  To-night or not to-night;
All voices that command or pray,
    Calling me,
Shall kindle in my soul such fire,
  And in my eyes such light,
That I shall see that heart’s desire
    I long to see.
At Advent, when my longing for a cozy vacation seems at odds with my desire for revelation, when I know that I long for Christ but can't imagine what his coming will actually mean, I take comfort in Rossetti's ability to set hope in resonance with uncertainty. But no, not uncertainty: with space, waiting, humility, silence?  She does not doubt that vision will come; she does not doubt that she will see, but she cannot name "that heart's desire." She concludes with her refrain, "I long to see" -- the same refrain we have heard from Simeon, from Anna, and from a thousand other mighty and minor prophets. 

Some days I boast precise visions of how the Incarnation ought to change the world. I grasp hold of programs, doctrines, or theories that seem to fit with my interpretation of Christ's words and ministry. These programs can be good, for they are, like church-buildings, man-made places to work for the glory of God. Such structures can be beautiful, effective, and holy.  In these last hours of Advent, I am spending time with my sister Rossetti. She has become one of the the "voices that command or pray, / Calling me." 

She calls me to step out into the cold twilight, to walk toward a place "Below the stars, beyond the moon," and to watch for the light.

1 comment:

  1. A Rossetti fan! I googled for this poem, and you came up. Anyway, I'm writing a novel where this poem is read by a group on a dark and stormy night in Cumbria. I'm a huge 19th-century fan, especially the nexus of German and English Dark Romanticism. Let me hear from you. I'm at