A bleak midwinter's Christmas: Ridgefield pastors' thoughts

The First Congregational Church of Ridgefield stands near the Cass Gilbert Fountain, decorated for the holidays. James T.Watson, senior minister of the church, was reminded this year of the Christmas carol and poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" by C hristina Rossetti.

The First Congregational Church of Ridgefield stands near the Cass Gilbert Fountain, decorated for the holidays. James T.Watson, senior minister of the church, was reminded this year of the Christmas carol and poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” by C hristina Rossetti.

Bryan Haeffele / Hearst Connecticut Media

Coming at the dark ending of a dark year in 2020, the holidays — Christmas, and Hanukkah — rekindle the light and warmth that live in human hearts, even through long nights and troubled times.

The Rev. Whitney Altopp, rector St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Main Street, thought of the Christmas story as a call to life.

“Annual traditions ground us,” she said. “Whereas the Christmas story might seem ‘oh so familiar,’ showing up to hear it and engage it again can tie us to the past and direct us for the future.

“With our past, we remember people and foods, the delightful and sorrowful memories that can surround this time,” Altopp said. “We realize that we’ve come this far by faith, taking each day at a time, and we’re doing it — we’re living.

“The Christmas story can direct us for the future through reminding us that new life is always in our midst.

“Although we receive a daily count of those who have died from this global pandemic, we also must remember that people continue to be born,” she said. “We are called to engage life — to live! May the annual remembrance of this 2000-year-old miracle remind us that God is among us, even now, calling us into life.”

Some clergy association members recalled carols and poems.

Bleak midwinter

“The carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ keeps going through my mind these days,” said the Rev. James T. Watson, senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield. “I have always found it a melancholy carol and have often shied away from it, preferring instead carols liberally peppered with ‘glorias.’

“But this year I think this carol speaks to our situation keenly, speaking of the incarnation in the midst of challenging times, when all one can do is simply endure the unendurable.

“Ultimately, the carol speaks to the transformation that is sparked by divine initiative, which we hope the celebration of Christmas will bring about in our lives,” Watson said.

“This year, let us allow this hope to endure along side of us until that time, when, with all creation, we may once more sing, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and God’s peace be given to all.’ I have no doubt that that day shall surely come. Merry Christmas!”

And here is the poem Watson refers to. It was written by Christina Rossetti in 1872, and set to music by composer Gustav Holst in 1906, with a choral version composed in 1909 by Harold Darke.

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,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed.

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

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.

Weary world, true charity

Msgr. Kevin Royal, pastor, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Ridgefield, said Watson’s recollection of the Rossetti work turned his thoughts to a different poem and carol.

“When that manger in Bethlehem was filled with the Light of the World two millennia ago, were the times any more challenging than our own fragile, fractured, and polarized COVID times? A good case can be made for that.

“Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, all times belong to Him. And so, that infant and Lord is our greatest hope.

G. K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Carol includes this:

The Christ Child lay on Mary’s lap,

his hair was like a fire,

O weary, weary was the world,

but here the World’s Desire.

“May the Lord’s grace drive out worldly weariness and unworthy desires and lead us all to Life and true Charity,” Royal said. “Christmas Blessings!”

Desert wisdom

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Anne Rundlett of Ridgebury Congregational Church spoke of both grief and joy as she contemplated the holiday in this difficult time.

“At The Meetinghouse-Ridgebury Congregational Church, we are leaning into the promise of Emmanuel: God with Us,” Rundlett said.

“As we know, Christmas is not just about celebrating Jesus’ birth in a manger. It is about the coming of God into our lives even now. We are allowing our memories of Christmases past to shape new visions.

“For many of us, this has been the most challenging of years,” she said.

“And yet, the wisdom of the desert reminds us: Out of the hollow carved out in suffering, more joy to dwell therein.

“This Christmas we seek to honor both the grief and the joy as we receive Emmanuel: God with Us into our lives anew.”

Healing and loving

Polly Castor, CS, First Church of Christ, Scientist at 260 Main St., spoke of darker aspects of the Christmas story giving way to light and healing and love.

“There are a lot of awful aspects of the Christmas story.” Castor said. “There is a teenage mother giving birth in a smelly stable. There are shepherds who are afraid. There are a legion of male children killed by Herod.

“There is a family’s flight to Egypt as immigrants seeking asylum. Then there is the life of Jesus: itinerant, homeless, tempted in the wilderness, owning nothing, rejected, betrayed, tortured, and killed.

“This last year of ours wasn’t so great either!” she said. “But all that is not what we celebrate.

“So instead, let’s remember how the story of Christmas started and finished. It began with Mary’s remarkable receptivity to an angel, and the shepherds being told to ‘fear not.’ Regardless of what is going on, we too can be receptive to remarkable good and learn not to fear.

“When Jesus grew up, his ministry was about healing and loving one another, culminating in tangible proof of eternal life,” Castor said. “He was a Way Shower, an Exemplar, showing us what we can do too. We too can heal, love one another, and live forever, even in this unusual time.

“And this promise, brought by the ‘light of the world’ illuminating every corner of darkness, is why we celebrate,” she said. “This Christmas and beyond, let’s shine forth with that Spirit!”

Bringing light

Illuminating the dark was part of the message shared by Rabbi Jon Haddon, retired longtime rabbi of Temple Shearith Israel —now Congregation Shir Shalom — on Peaceable Street.

“The Hanukkah menorah has spots for nine candles. Eight of the candles are of even height but one stands higher than the others. This ninth and taller one is called the shamash (in Hebrew) and literally means helper or servant,” Rabbi Haddon said.

“When we light our menorahs each night, adding a candle each day and more light each night, we are obligated to use the shamash candle to light the other candles.

“What a wonderful task the shamash has been assigned, in bringing light to the other candles. For this effort, it stands a little taller,” Rabbi Haddon said.

“Like our candle helper, every day — especially these dark and uncertain days — we each have the opportunity to be the shamash by bringing light, personally and communally.

“To stand a little taller — and to help all of the other candles in the world, especially ‘human candles’ to burn just a little bit brighter.”

The Face of God

Ridgebury-based minister and psychologist Fred Turpin recalled the message of the poor and outcast being closest to God.

“I follow the Franciscan tradition and see Christmas as God’s second incarnation into the world,” he said. “The first act of incarnation was what we now refer to as ‘The Big Bang.’

“We can only speculate why God needed or wanted to create a material world. And along with that came Time and Light and Movement and all of it was good.

“At Christmas, those of us who are Christians see God moving into the world in a Second Incarnation, bringing into human form and human consciousness God’s Very Word, embodied in flesh, suffering as all humans suffer, knowing pain and loss, humiliation, torture and death on the cross,” Turpin said.

“For me, this means God is no longer out there, but with me and within me, insofar as I am fully alive and awake, as I see was embodied in He whom we now call the Christ.”

“It makes complete sense that this ‘king’ was born as a helpless infant, a vagabond who would soon need to flee to a foreign land,” he said. “What other story is full with such irony, such humility, such grace?

“He would grow to proclaim that those who are poor and outcast, women and children, those who had no value within the ruling culture would be those who were closest to the heart of God,” Turpin said.

“He dined with them. He healed them. He lived his life forgiving those who had been damaged by the ruling elite and religious authorities. He loved them and gave their lives meaning and purpose, and offers that same sense of opportunity to each of us today,” Turpin said.

“He revealed to us the face of God. And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.”