A Winter Hymn   Leave a comment

Samuel Longfellow

Samuel Longfellow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Burns Night coming up next week, I went to ‘kirk’ this morning. Well, the Hungarian equivalent, anyway. The Reformed, or ‘Calvinist’ Church in Kecskemét, whose school is attended by my nine-year-old son. The interior is rather austere compared with the sense of warmth I get when walking into the Baptist Church that we usually attend. This morning the whitewashed walls inside the Church matched the pavements and town square outside, whitewashed with snow. In both churches, I try to interpret the services for myself, without continuous translation. Afterwards, I discuss it with my Hungarian wife, who helps me to summarise the message. As she did not have a Christian upbringing, she often still finds the religious language quite alien, especially when it’s formal and ritualistic. That’s why we prefer the Baptist service, although much longer, because the language is often more spontaneous and sometimes so inspired that it communicates directly, rather as I imagine the first disciples managed to make themselves understood on the first Pentecost to a multilingual audience when, as Palestinian fishermen and craftsman, most spoke only Aramaic fluently, with some able to use Greek. Of course, this ‘total immersion’ approach only really works when I also feel inspired by the message being conveyed, and at other times I prefer to read in English and reflect on the passages from scripture from which the message is meant to spring. This morning, my thoughts turned from the wintry weather outside to the book of Genesis, from which the text was taken (I’m using ‘text’ in this case in its original sense!).  Unfortunately, however, I don’t have a bilingual Old Testament, just Good News for Modern Man‘ in parallel text, English and Hungarian. So I picked up my son’s ‘Storyteller Bible’ which had been given to him as a dedication present by his uncle and Godparent. The passage being read was about the fourth day of the creation, beautifully and poetically paraphrased in the book, with colourful illustrations:

God shouted next.

‘Day-shining sun!’

‘Night-shining moon!’

‘Bright shining stars!’

And there they were, for morning and evening,

summer and winter-time and heat and light!

Then, not really understanding much of the sermon which followed, I turned to my Church of Scotland‘Psalm Book and Hymnary’ (A ‘Revised Edition’ published in Oxford in the 1930’s) which helps me find English language versions of the Psalms being sung, rewritten in metre and paraphrase, as well as containing the creeds and litanies sometimes recited by the congregation. Thinking about creation, I strayed into the hymn-book section, and found a series of hymns in a sub-section for ‘Times and Seasons‘, two of which were about Winter. The first emphasised the freezing, dark, drear and ‘drych’ (to use a British-Scottish word) character of the season. But then I found the following beautiful words penned by Samuel Longfellow (1819-92) which, for me, summed up the nature of most winter days here in central Europe – bright, clear, ‘crisp and even’, (as another poet, a contemporary, once wrote):

‘Tis winter now; the fallen snow

Has left the heavens all coldly clear;

Through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow,

 And all the earth lies dead and drear.

And yet God’s love is not withdrawn;

His life within the keen air breathes;

His beauty paints the crimson dawn,

And clothes the boughs with glittering wreaths.

And though abroad the sharp winds blow,

And skies are chill, and frosts are keen,

Home closer draws her circle now,

And warmer glows her light within.

O God! who giv’st the winter’s cold,

As well as summer’s joyous rays,

Us warmly in thy love enfold,

And keep us through life’s wintry days.

Amen to that!

Listening to the end of the sermon, I felt the preacher’s message somehow matched these reflections. Outside, the snow’s melting here now. Must check the news from Britain soon, to see what it’s doing there, and how people are coping with the icy blast in ‘Foggy Albion’!

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