Advent is often a dark time. Of course, Michigan, where I live and where the days are brutally short and it is overcast for much of the late fall and winter, rendering sunlight at a premium, that is literally true. But it is also a dark time spiritually, psychologically, poetically. I have always noticed this, not so much in the way of introspection and anticipation for the birth of Christ, but as a world phenomenon, a metaphysical reality. Often world events attest to this, whether by way of natural disasters or the even more intransigent, and seemingly unavoidable, man-made disasters such as war or politics. In a way not unlike that of the classic television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Kenneth Branagh captures this mood perfectly—and, surprisingly, comically—in his 1995 film In the Bleak Midwinter (known to American audiences as A Midwinter’s Tale).
At the very beginning of the film we meet Joe (played by Michael Maloney), a passionate yet tremendously underemployed actor who wants to put on a production of Hamlet during the yuletide. He explains his psychological state moving into this project.
“It was late November (I think), and I was thinking about the whole Christmas thing: the birth of Christ, The Wizard of Oz, family murders. And, quite frankly, I was depressed. You know, I always wanted to live my life, like, in an old movie, a sort of fairy tale, you know? Mind you, I suppose, a lot of fairy tales turn out to be nightmares, a lot of old movies are crap—well, that’s what I did. You see, the thing was, um…. Well, you know the way doctors say that nervous breakdowns can happen very fast and dramatically, sort of big bang? Or there are the other kind, which happen very slowly over a period of time. Well, I was thirty-three years old, and this one had started when I was seven months and it had just begun to get a grip.”
Advent is always such a time, and this year, for me at least, it’s been even darker. There are, of course, the geopolitical threats of an encroaching totalitarianism—which seems to be metastasizing in the Western “democracies” to a shocking degree. Justin Trudeau may be the most loathsome of this ilk with his authoritarian proclivities and penchant for “assisted” suicide (“coerced” is a better adjective), but he has many competitors in his quest for most Herodian of the Herodians.
This week in Canada: “I don’t want to go on the cart.”
But there are also the more personal infections of darkness. In one week this November, for example, my bank account was hacked, I found myself in a property line dispute with my only neighbor which included a visit from the sheriff, our two vehicles required necessary repairs to the tune of $3000, and my mother, who had lived with me for the past seven years, at last succumbed to the vascular dementia with which she had been afflicted for nearly a decade. This, of course, followed three years of societal insanity that has damaged the psyches of many of our loved ones, mine included, in ways that, I think, we are still not quite ready to admit.
Often when we experience these kinds of stressors, they can trigger dormant traumas and such was the case with me. Without going too far into it, I have revisited the suicide of a childhood friend and later girlfriend named Lisa from when I was eighteen and the suicide of my uncle Kevin, a sensitive artist and musician, more like an older brother, who taught me how to play guitar and who abandoned this veil of tears when he was forty-four during an Advent twenty-seven years ago. One never gets over these kinds of events. The wound never completely heals.
A song that often returns to me at this season is Dougie Maclean’s “Turning Away,” a tune about the incremental loss of Scottish indigeneity through globalization and modernity. Its refrain says it all:
In darkness we do what we can In daylight we’re oblivion Our hearts so raw and clear Are turning away, turning away from here
The comfort the song gives me is not one of resolution, but of recognition of the fallenness of Things; and perhaps this is one of the most important messages of Advent.
Here’s a beautiful version of the song by Dougie with Kathy Mattea and the wizardry of Jerry Douglas on dobro among the contributions of other great players.
The title of Branagh’s film, as many will have noticed, is taken from Christian Rossetti’s exquisite Christmas poem of the same name which was first published in 1872. In 1905, British composer Gustav Holst set the poem to music and it is in this form that it is most widely recognized. Rossetti’s lyric encapsulates both the melancholy of the Advent mood and the anticipation of a glory to come. It speaks particularly to our own times, as it does to all times.
A lovely version of the hymn by Angelo Kelly & Family
The traditional epistle reading for the fourth Sunday in Advent in the Roman Church, as in the Anglican, emphasizes our contention with darkness in anticipation of the birth of the Light:
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.” (1 Corinthians 4)
This melancholia that has so infected me as of late has brought to mind another such period of sorrow and depression when I was twenty-one. Then, a young musician and songwriter, I felt directionless, out of hope. It was a time when I found, in the words of John Donne, “all coherence gone.” Nothing made sense. Somehow, though, I was able to write my one and only Christmas song, a mashup between Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major and The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud”—and it is far from afflicted with melancholia. In fact, it’s downright chipper. And here it is in a version I recorded live with the Corktown Popes eight years ago:
So, I guess this is my Christmas greeting to all of you, friends known and unknown, from here in the wilderness. And we are all of us in the wilderness.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_