“Old and New Year Ditties” by Christina Rossetti

Vogeler, Heinrich_Reverie
Heinrich Vogeler (German, 1872–1942), Reverie, ca. 1900. Oil on canvas.

               1.
New Year met me somewhat sad:
     Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had,
Baulked of much desired:
     Yet farther on my road today
God willing, farther on my way.

New Year coming on apace
     What have you to give me?
Bring you scathe, or bring you grace,
Face me with an honest face;
     You shall not deceive me:
Be it good or ill, be it what you will,
It needs shall help me on my road,
My rugged way to heaven, please God.

               2.
Watch with me, men, women, and children dear,
You whom I love, for whom I hope and fear,
Watch with me this last vigil of the year.
Some hug their business, some their pleasure scheme;
Some seize the vacant hour to sleep or dream;
Heart locked in heart some kneel and watch apart.

Watch with me, blessed spirits, who delight
All thro’ the holy night to walk in white,
Or take your ease after the long-drawn fight.
I know not if they watch with me: I know
They count this eve of resurrection slow,
And cry, “How long?” with urgent utterance strong.

Watch with me, Jesus, in my loneliness:
Tho’ others say me nay, yet say Thou yes;
Tho’ others pass me by, stop Thou to bless.
Yea, Thou dost stop with me this vigil night;
Tonight of pain, tomorrow of delight:
I, Love, am Thine; Thou, Lord my God, art mine.

               3.
Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty and youth sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play;
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo the bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven’s May.
Tho’ I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray.
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.

This poem was originally published in Goblin Market and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1862) and appears in The Complete Poems by Christina Rossetti (Penguin, 2001). It is in the public domain.

Roundup: “Art and Social Impact,” Auld Lang Syne in Birmingham, and more

ONLINE PANEL: “Art and Social Impact,” January 26, 2021, 14:30 GMT (9:30 a.m. EST): Next Tuesday the Rev. Jonathan Evens [previously], associate vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, will be talking with interdisciplinary photography and media artist André Daughtry [previously], sculptor Nicola Ravenscroft, portrait painter and humanitarian Hannah Rose Thomas, and graphic designer Micah Purnell about their personal journeys in addressing issues of social concern in their art practices. The session will also explore ways in which churches can engage with such art and use it for exploring issues with congregations and beyond. Register here for a Zoom invite. (Update: View the recording.)

Tears of Gold by Hannah Rose Thomas
Hannah Rose Thomas, paintings from the Tears of Gold series, 2017. Click image to learn more, and see the Google Arts & Culture exhibition.

Ravenscroft, Nicola_With the Heart of a Child
Nicola Ravenscroft, With the Heart of a Child, 2016. Sculpture installation comprising seven life-size bronze children. The artist calls the figures “eco-earthling-warrior-mudcubs.” Click image for artist interview, and here for a theological reflection.

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VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)

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NATIONAL MOURNING: Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.

The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.

Washington National Cathedral COVID memorial

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MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]

“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.

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ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Human Ants (street art)
Human Ants, Liverpool Street, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jason Goroncy.

“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”

The year is going, let him go

What Alfred Lord Tennyson instructs the church bells in canto CVI of “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” I am begging the Holy Spirit to do in my own heart and mind, my communities, and across the world for the new year:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

This passage, from one of the greatest (and longest!) poems of the nineteenth century, is the source of the popular expression “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Ringing church bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve was already a deep-set tradition in England, and people understood the ringing as ushering in both life (the new year ahead) and death (saying good-bye to the past). But Tennyson’s poeticization of this symbolic practice has made its symbolism all the more enduring, and his list of specific qualities to let go of and others to welcome in provides a helpful template for new-year prayer and resolution making.

Roof, Winter by Arkhip Kuindzhi
Arkhip Kuindzhi (Russian, ca. 1842–1910), Roof. Winter, 1876. Oil on canvas on cardboard, 40 × 25 cm.

Tennyson apostrophizes his city’s church bells, telling them to ring out all of last year’s sins and griefs, falsehoods, feuds, strife, greed, bad-mouthing, economic disparities, political posturing, spite, war, and disease—all the year’s coldness and darkness, be gone. And ring in, sweet bells, truth, redress, purity, peace, joy, righteousness, love of the good, large hearts and kind hands, courage, freedom. And most important, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Extending the cry of Advent, this final line acknowledges that although Christ was born into our world at Christmas, he is still yet to come in all his power and glory. That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”—or, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Savior, come, uprooting all wrongs, setting all to right.

In 1948 Mormon composer Crawford Gates set Tennyson’s text to music; the hymn sheet can be downloaded for free from the LDS website, and authorization is given for live church performances, no license required.

Then in 2014 singer-songwriter Callie Crofts wrote an absolutely beautiful three-part a cappella arrangement of Gates’s hymn, which she performed with her sisters, Colette Butler and Devri Esplin, on their family Christmas album, Sparrow in the Birch. (The entire album is a treasure; the title track—wow!)

Crofts’s version, which omits Tennyson’s fourth and sixth stanzas, captures a dual sense of lament (this is what we’ve done to each other; this is the darkness we’ve created) and expectation (God’s light will shine into this; this is what we want him to do). A modulation from the minor mode to the major occurs on the word “peace” in the penultimate verse, a sudden flash of hopefulness. The rich voice blending continues, the key melting gently back into A minor, until that final chord sounds—a Picardy third—surprising, again, with its brightness.

A form of resolution, a Picardy third is a major chord of the tonic that occurs at the end of a minor-key musical section or piece, achieved by raising the third of the expected minor triad by one half-step. So while we would expect the middle note of the final A chord to be C, Crofts raises it up by one semitone to C♯, creating a “happier triad.” Originating during the Renaissance, this harmonic device was especially used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to end solemn organ preludes and toccatas.

In The Language of Music, Deryck Cooke writes,

Western composers, expressing the “rightness” of happiness by means of a major third, expressed the “wrongness” of grief by means of the minor third, and for centuries, pieces in a minor key had to have a “happy ending”—a final major chord.

There was so much wrong committed this past year, so much closing down of possibilities, it would be easy to dwell in that minor mode. But we need to lean into the major. We need to confidently claim the promise of a bright and happy future, through the Christ who was and is and is to be, to whom belong all power, honor, and glory.

Below is a list of other musical settings of “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” It’s fun to hear the various interpretations, but of all of them, I still prefer Gates/Crofts:

  • Charles Gounod, 1880 [Listen]
  • Percy Fletcher, 1914 [Listen]
  • George Harrison, excerpted in “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” 1974 [Listen]
  • Ron Nelson, 1990 [Listen]
  • Andrew Downes, from Ballads for Christmas song cycle (No. 8, “New Year Bells”), 1992 [Listen]
  • Karl Jenkins, from the finale (“Better Is Peace”) to The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace), 1999 [Listen]
  • Jonathan Dove, from The Passing of the Year song cycle (No. 7), 2000 [Listen]
  • Godfrey Birtill, 2010 [Listen]
  • James Q. Mulholland, 2011 [Listen]
  • Stuart Brown, from Idylls song cycle (No. 1), 2015 [Listen]
  • [Update, 12/29/17—This song was just released today!] Alana Levandoski, 2017 [Listen]