Advent with the Poets: ‘Advent’ by Christina Rosetti

Today’s Poet

Today I’m reading Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘Advent.’  I hope you will be able to attend a church this Christmas Eve that invites you to sing ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘, Rosetti’s most well known poem. I can’t imagine celebrating Christmas without singing this carol. Now that I’ve discovered her poem ‘Advent,’ I can’t imagine preparing for Christmas without these verses of expectation, longing, and hope.

Advent

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”

One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
“All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.”

One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”

*Source: The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (1904),  p. 202, available via Project Gutenberg.

Why this poem belongs in Advent

There’s no obscure message here. Rosetti takes her readers on the Advent journey from arduous nights of watching and waiting into the joyful dawn of Christ’s arrival. The character of Christ’s arrival imagined at the end of the poem is a second coming of sorts. An end-of-the-world coming is not imagined here, but that homecoming of the weary pilgrim who enters eternal life following death. In a way, Rosetti incorporates the three comings of Christ in Advent that St. Thomas Aquinas noted: the coming of Christ in his Incarnation; the coming of Christ in the human heart; the coming of Christ at the end of time. As the Church prepares for the third Sunday of Advent–Rose Sunday, when the character of joy increases as we near Christmas Day–Rosetti’s poem helps us enter the full Advent journey from night to daybreak.

Meditation and some probable poetic misinterpretation

Few preachers and writers explore the experience of suffering in Advent because there is so much forward momentum leading to Christmas. But the Advent themes of waiting and waiting-in-exile should give one pause to move too quickly to the Bethlehem manger. In so doing, we may be leaving behind those who Rosetti describes as ‘Heart-sick with hope deferred‘ with ‘waysore feet.’ Rosetti is always aware of the weary pilgrim. Read her poem ‘Up-Hill‘ when you are exhausted in heart and mind and you will know you are not alone.
In the same spirit, Rosetti reminds us that the saints who have received their reward in heaven are present to urge those on who keep watch in the longest nights. The psalmist comforts us in our pain saying, ‘how long, oh Lord?’ So also Rosetti in this verse:  The watch is long betimes and late,/

  The prize is slow to win. Yet the greatest comfort of all may be found in the human experience of our Incarnate Lord: Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept/  For us.

Undergirding the weary, tear-filled watches of the night is this sojourner’s belief in the promise of eternal joy in heaven. Departed saints converse with the poem’s sojourner and it is their inherited reward that inspires faith through her dark night. Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,/  Nor heart conceived that rest,/ With them our good things long deferred,/  With Jesus Christ our Best.

Soon the sojourner glimpses the dawn of her reward. Sorrows that froze her heart through years of bitter loss now thaw in the warmth of her Savior’s appearing. Hope never extinguished through the nights of her longsuffering. Lamps are a central image throughout the poem: ‘Our lamps have burned year after year,/ And still their flame is strong.’ So the poem concludes with a final flourish, her persevering faith rewarded: though this sojourner has suffered long, her life has only begun. For the ending of the poem is a glorious beginning, the Lover summons his Beloved into everlasting life.

 

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