Christina Rossetti, the fervent proponent of High Anglicanism who gave us #112 in the Episcopal hymnal, the haunting carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” also wrote the brief poem below, often anthologized for children:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you;
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I;
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
Read in the context of Rossetti’s ardent faith, these deceptively simply stanzas offer subtle but powerful suggestions for us as we begin our observation of a holy Advent.
The precise diction with which Rossetti presents the images in her two stanzas carries obvious Biblical connotations. The leaves in the first stanza are trembling—a word that appears throughout Bible, often characterizing the proper behavior of sinners and saints alike in the presence of God:
The LORD reigneth; let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubim; let the Earth be moved (Psalm 99:1).
My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgments (Psalm 119:120).
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
This “fear” that causes us to tremble is the natural expression of awe and reverence in submission to God’s power and glory.
In Rossetti’s second stanza, “The trees bow down their heads.” And so should we when we recognize not only the awe-inspiring nature of God’s omnipotence, but also the divine Love whose incarnation we anticipate in the observance of Advent.
My favorite metaphor in this brief poem is that of the wind itself. The Hebrew word ruach (רוּחַ) evokes the triple meaning of wind, breath, and spirit. It appears some 377 times in the Old Testament in this shared sense:
The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2).
And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged (Genesis 8:1).
The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life (Job 33:4).
In the New Testament, that mysterious concept combining in one word a powerful wind, the breath of life, and the Spirit of God is expressed by the Greek pneuma (πνεῦμα), as on the day of Pentecost: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).
Because Advent I is a moveable feast according to the vagaries of the liturgical calendar, this year we observe the shortest possible season of Advent—just 22 days. It is my prayer that we may use each of these fleeting moments to prepare our hearts, minds, and spirits for a new coming of Jesus into our lives:
May we breathe deeply the breath of God;
May we be open to the winds of change in our lives;
May we listen to, walk alongside, and take comfort in the ever-present Holy Spirit; and
May we bow and tremble as we contemplate anew the mystery of our faith: That God took human form to bring us back into his holy presence.