"O ye frost and cold": the Prayer Book in bleak midwinter

Back in the warm days of early May, I offered a May Day meditation on Old High piety, reflecting on how "noble but bare and quiet" Georgian-style churches (illustrated with examples of some historic Episcopal churches in the United States) cohered with Cranmer's words and the theology of the Prayer Book: with modesty and reserve, quietly and decently ordering us towards "the author of peace and lover of concord".

On this Advent Ember Day, I offer a related meditation, reflecting on how the Prayer Book sustains us in prayer through dark, cold December days. To illustrate this, there are photographs taken over recent days - days of sharp frost and bitter cold - at The Middle Church, in the heart of Jeremy Taylor country: a sign of prayer continued over the centuries, including cold and dark times.

We turn first to Mattins, in the cold darkness of a December morning. A hard frost has settled over houses, gardens, and roads during the hours of night.  It being Advent, the Benedicite is said in place of the Te Deum, mindful of the penitential character of the season (as encouraged by Sparrow). And so we say:

O ye Winter and Summer, bless ye the Lord ...

O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord ...

O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord:

praise him, and magnify him for ever.

We have given thanks for the long, warm days of Summer and for the rich bounty of Autumn.  Now in deep midwinter, we also give thanks: for the frost cleansing and purifying; for the sparse, sharp beauty that Winter can bring; for "the short gloomy days and darksome nights" bringing - in the words of Washington Irving -  "thoughts ... more concentrated ... friendly sympathies more aroused".

After the second lesson at Mattins, the Benedictus is said:

Through the tender mercy of our God: whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;

To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.

Sunrise is not until 8:39am today. Mattins during these days is said in the darkness of what Donne called "the year's midnight". This gives to these words from the Benedictus the quality of yearning also found in the ancient Advent antiphons. In the very depths of dark Winter we pray to "the day-spring from on high [who] hath visited us", that His advent will "Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death's dark shadows put to flight". The deep darkness of a mid-December morning is an icon of our need for "the day-spring from on high", amidst the darkness that we know in our hearts, in the violence and injustice of the world, and in the face of our own mortality.

Mattins is said in darkness: so too is Evensong. Today sunset is 3:59pm. As with the prayer at the heart of the Benedictus at Morning Prayer, so the Third Collect at Evening Prayer is prayed in Winter darkness, with "scarce seven hours" of daylight. It is a prayer which gathers up all the prayers and petitions of Advent: "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord". The darkness in which Evensong is said moves us to seek the light of the Lord's Advent.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evensong join with the Benedictus in drawing us alongside ancient Israel during its long Winter of defeat, of exile, of waiting. So in Advent we watch and pray with the Blessed Virgin, Simeon, Zacharias and - in the words of Cosin's prayer for the Advent Ember Days - "all Thy devout servants, who waited for the consolation of Israel".

The penultimate petition in the Litany might be regarded as rather out of place amidst what Irving described as the "dreariness and desolation of the landscape" in Winter:

That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, so as in due time we may enjoy them ... 

But, no, it is not at all out of place.  For, as embodied beings and mindful that grace does not destroy nature, we will celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord with "the kindly fruits of the earth". Hooker wisely stated that alongside God's "praises sett forth with cheerefull alacritie of minde", "the most naturall testimonies of our rejoycinge" include "our comforte and delight expressed by a charitable largenes of somewhat more then common bountie" (LEP V.70.2). As creatures who come before our heavenly Father "to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul", praying in the Litany that we may enjoy the coming festive fare is suitable indeed for dark, cold December days.

Then there is the opening petition of the collect for the final week of Advent:

O Lord, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us ...

It is a petition suited to the depths of Winter.  When the days are darkest, when the frost settles on the landscape, then we are viscerally reminded that, as creatures, we are dependent upon light and warmth. That dependence is not only physical; it is also true of our existence as spiritual beings. Without the One who is Life and Light we are not. We enter into an everlasting Winter, consumed by cold darkness.  And so we pray, "come among us, and with great might succour us". It is a petition answered in the Incarnation of the Logos, a petition which prepares us to receive afresh the proclamation of the Christmas Gospel in the midst of bleak midwinter:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

I am grateful for the Prayer Book in the depths of Winter. The words of Cranmer gather up the cold, dark days in prayer and penitence, thanksgiving and petition, drawing us to see how Winter echoes and amplifies the truth of our need of and reliance upon the "bountiful grace and mercy" of our Creator and Redeemer.  I see this reflected in The Middle Church on Winter days. There is nothing ornate or glamorous about this plain, ordinary Jacobean church. But it stands through the cold, dark days, a sign of prayer offered, at life's beginning and its end, in the warm days of Summer and the bitter cold of Winter, in quiet Evensong on August evenings and in the festive joys of Our Lord's Nativity. So can the ordinary, unglamorous reality of common prayer, of Prayer Book Mattins, Litany, and Evensong, of the collects of Advent, aid us in our prayer through cold, dark Winter days and in all the winters of our hearts and souls.


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