They are flocking from the East
And the West,
They are flocking from the North
And the South,
Every moment setting forth
From realm of snake or lion,
Swamp or sand,
Ice or burning;
Greatest and least,
Palm in hand
And praise in mouth,
They are flocking up the path
To their rest,
Up the path that hath
Christina Rossetti is one of the most gifted poets in the English language. She is also something of a guide for pilgrims sojourning up the Christian path. I was reminded of this fact during All Saints, Advent, and Christmas this year. Mrs. Collister, as she is known around the school, I know her as my wife, read Rossetti’s Advent poem at one of the chapel services. It was good, a moving meditation on the mysterious way God calls his people to keep watch with lamps burning and to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Peace and Righteousness and Justice.
The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”
I was moved by the meditation, and I found out before Christmas break that my students were likewise moved. I asked the Dialectic School (called Middle School in our secular institutions) what affected them in chapel this year. Of course, several referenced the charismatic speakers calling for students to get excited about Jesus. That being said, there was the occasional student who stood in awe of the beauty of Christ, of the mysteries of God, of the somewhat more liturgical and poetic services. A few such children said they loved Christina Rossetti’s poem about Advent. It reminded them of what it means to “prepare the way!”
Fr. Shaun LaDuc and I love the work of Canon Bernard Iddings Bell. We consider him one of the foremost proponents of Christianity and the Anglican Catholic faith in the Twentieth Century. How he fell out of print lies far beyond my comprehension. Well, he declared Christina Rossetti our “chief Anglo-Catholic poet,” and as the seasons pass, I can see why.
When Sarah and I attended the Christmas concert at our school, the choir sang “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It moved us and stayed with us. In fact, when we put together the set list for caroling around downtown Rochester, we had to stretch our carolers and persuade them to sing “In the Bleak Midwinter.” When Christmas Eve rolled around, we had to sing it once again. Rossetti captures the mysterious feeling of seeing God in the flesh and realizing your gifts are totally inadequate. And yet, and yet, you give something. If you are a shepherd, you give a lamb. If you are a wise man, you give precious metals and spices. If you are a dozen poor millenials in Rochester, Michigan, you give incense and time and hopes and prayers. It’s not, perhaps, the most impressive sacrifice, but you give your best.
As we moved from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany I thought about Christina Rossetti. She sacrificed to follow Jesus. When her boyfriend joined the Roman Church, she broke it off because she wanted to follow Christ in the Anglican way. Her sister served God as an Anglican nun. Her brothers painted and drew for the glory of God. She wrote and argued and served the poor for Jesus. In fact, when other sought female liberation and radicalism, she reminded women that God called for men to rise above their base desires and lead women and families and churches as spiritual exemplars. She worshiped according to the Anglo-Catholic customs. And, perhaps most importantly for Anglicans in this day and age, she wrote her way through the whole of the Christian year. In fact, she acted as something of a Virgil to the modern day Dante. She followed Jesus through the snow and green, the burnt soil and colored leaves, and she continually gave praise. In our culture, when everything is about worshiping the gods of health, wealth, and pleasure, Rossetti reminds us that Jesus calls our names. He asks us to leave what we are doing and meet him at the table in bread and wine, meet him at the icons in prayer and intercession, meet him in the snow and fog, and call his name as we question all the strange happenings around us. God demands we be a peculiar people. As Dante stood lost in a wood, we stand lost in the cosmos. Christina Rossetti can help us find the way. Give her a chance. I think, where it counts, she is the Anglo-Catholic Virgil we need in these dark and wooded days. Let’s listen to her voice and follow her up the mountain.
One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”