Our Church Music Colloquium is organized according to the calendar of the church year, and this term we are examining music for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany – fitting since we will experience this part of the year in real life even as we study it. We each prepared a study of the lyrics of one Advent hymn for our last class, discussing the poetic devices used, where we would place it in Advent (I looked up the PCC lectionary for this, you'll be glad to know) and where it fits with other hymnody of the same period.
One of my classmates was assigned "In the Bleak Midwinter." I love this hymn. To me it sums up just about everything Christmas stands for, not to mention the realities of winter. On top of that, I heart Bob Chilcott's arrangement (not to mention the classic Singers and Players recording). As soon as we got talking about it in class, though, Darnell (who was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) said "I never connected with this hymn singing it as a kid. It was never cold at Christmas." We all laughed and talked about this, and Megan (who grew up in Iowa) and I chimed in that where we come from, it resonates emphatically. Dr. Hawn pointed out that they really don't go for this one much in Australia. Joking aside, Darnell's comment really set off a light for me. Here is a hymn text that has deep significance for me, by virtue of where I come from and what my life experience is, which I share with the lyricist. In Old Testament class we have discussed the importance of "social location"; how the biases of a writer or our biases as readers, based on our status and position in the scheme of things, impacts our interpretation of a text. Here in Colloquium class was almost a step simpler than that – textual impact based on geographical location!
I'm also fascinated to be learning that Advent is not intended to only be about waiting for the Christ-child, but is a time for us to reflect on the end of time and the return of Christ (eschatology, in seminary-speak). That's part of the neat mystery of our faith: welcome to the beginning of the Church year; let's think about the End. Knowing this is making some hymns I thought I knew take on really exciting new significance. It gave me a little thrill to discover places where the lyrics of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" really resemble the cautionary text of "Wachet auf".
During that discussion, it also hit me that there will be no bleak midwinter for me to sing about this year. That gave me a little pang.