How lovely is your dwelling place (not mine, at the moment)

Moving house is a pain….

We are currently moving house,  possibly only for a short while, but we aren’t sure, so we have had to pack everything. That is extremely tedious, but even worse is unpacking. At least when you pack everything, it goes tidily into boxes, but when you unpack, you have to find a right place for all sorts of stuff that you rather wish you had never acquired.

soldiers pillaging house
Moving the contents out of your house is called    pillage
….partly because of what our houses mean to us

At least doing boring mechanical labour (shelving books, hanging clothes) leaves your mind free to wander (especially when you’ve found the CDs but can’t find anything to play them on yet – or, even worse, have the machine but not the flex….), so I was thinking about how important our living place is to us, and how much is wrapped up in the little word ‘house’.  I’m using it as a generic term.  There was a book in the Dr Seuss series that we had at home when my younger sisters and brother were small, called ‘Come over to my house‘, and I remember it went through all sorts of different sorts of dwellings in all different parts of the world, but the key point was : ‘Wherever you go, you will hear someone say,’Come over to my house! Come over and play!’ ‘, and I’m using it precisely like that, whether it’s a flat, a hut, a castle or anything else.  There are lots of occasions in the Bible where ‘house’ is taken to mean ‘family’, ‘clan’, ‘dependants’ or something along those lines, but I’m just discussing fixed physical dwelling places here.

‘Let us go to God’s house’

In dire need of distraction (and to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a beast of burden), I started wondering whether there was any relevant stuff in the psalms.  I couldn’t think of many examples off the top of my head.   What struck me was that nearly the only person who actually has a house, is God.  There’s all the polite arguing in the Bible between David and the Lord, and later Solomon, about whether God needs a house;  but God spends a lot of time pointing out that he made everything, so he could make a house if he wanted one.  ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 23/24), so it’s all his dwelling place.  Once David and Solomon have palaces, they can’t bear that the Lord shouldn’t have something at least equally impressive, and the Temple gets built, to very careful and elaborate specifications.  This is all in other books of the Bible, though, rather than in the psalms.   They range from referring to God’s dwelling on the holy mountain, or in the clouds,  to everyone calling out ‘Glory!’ to the Lord in his temple, but the actual dwelling usually remains nebulous (very appropriate).

World with cloud flying above
God among the clouds, and the earth below
A place for the Lord

There is one psalm (131/132) which recaps the conversation between David and the Lord : David goes on sleep strike until he can find a suitable place for God; he has a house, so he feels that God should have a house. He locates the ark of the covenant, and then offers the Lord somewhere where David feels he will be comfortable and looked after properly.  The psalm endearingly makes God sound like someone finding his ideal home in a newspaper supplement or on line: ‘For the Lord has chosen Zion;/he has desired it for his dwelling: ‘This is my resting-place for ever,/here have I chosen to live.’  The rest of it consists of  God’s reciprocal promises to David, as though in gratitude for the lovely house he has been provided with.  We sing this psalm once a year, on the feast of the Assumption.

Nomads don’t have ‘houses’

The early psalms are written by nomad people, so there are no references to any settled dwelling for humans.  The psalmist’s aspiration is limited to lying in safety on a bed (Pss 3 and 4 ).  Later there are a couple of references to houses for people, as the authors reflect their own experience, but they are rare, less than half a dozen.  The princess travelling to marry the King is adjured to forget her father’s house (Ps 44/45), presumably because she is going to a better one.   The only other houses are in Ps 100/101, where the psalmist celebrates having his own place where he can arrange things the way he chooses: ‘ I will walk with blameless heart within my house…no man who practises deceit shall live within my house’; the psalm about David deciding to build a house for God; and the two psalms starting at 126/127, which emphasizes how central God is to any enterprise :  ‘Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour.’.  The second of the pair is a celebration of the just man’s homelife (this is the psalm so often sung at weddings), with his wife in the heart of his house and his children surrounding the table (127/128).  There is a clear subconscious mental link between women and houses : you need a house to keep your wife in (‘at home the women’ Ps 67/68).  And if it’s your house, you say who can come in.

So one of the crucial differences between people and God is that God definitely has a house to which a person may be allowed access. From the very beginning, there is an idea that God has a settled place, even if man may not approach it (Moses goes up the mountain to find God, while everyone else won’t set foot there).  This is long before the building of the Temple.  The usual expression for God’s dwelling is God’s ‘holy place’ or ‘holy mountain’ (from Ps 3 on), specifically Mount Zion (from Ps 2 on), and some time later, Jerusalem (Ps 75/76).

Did Adam and Eve have a house?

God puts Adam and Eve in a garden, but there’s no mention of them needing any shelter, because they are safe from all danger and sufficiently warm even out in the open (until the serpent walks in, on his legs which he is soon to lose).  The garden has walls and gates, though, which is why they can be excluded from it, so it fulfils some of the requirements of a house.

Adam and Eve with serpent
Legs still there (for now)

We know the garden is very beautiful and well-watered, but there’s no indication of even a little shed, which is interesting, because they might have liked somewhere to keep the tools they had to help them cultivate the garden (as I was trying to find somewhere for secateurs and screwdrivers).

Just how lovely is your dwelling place, Lord?

We have no specifications for God’s own holy dwelling.  We know nothing about it, except that it is a wonderful place to be, and if you are there, there is nothing else which you want or need. ‘I love the house where you dwell ‘ (Ps 25/26).  ‘To be near God is my happiness’ (Ps 72/73).  ‘How lovely is your dwelling place’ (Ps 83/84).  It’s big, because it has courts in the plural, and there are trees growing in the courtyards (Pss 83/84, 91/92,, 95/96 and 133/134) .  It is peaceful and beautiful, and the food is good (Pss 22/23, 35/36, 67/68, 111/112).  It is full of singing and music (hurrah!) , and everyone is happy there (Pss 83/84, 86/87, 91/92, 117/118, 121/122 – there are lots of examples).  One day in God’s house is worth a thousand anywhere else (Ps 83/84), and even being at the gate or by the threshold is enough (Pss 83/84, 86/87).  So we have no details, but it is all infinitely desirable.

French mediaeval castle
A castle to feel safe in

The psalmist emphasizes different aspects of the Lord’s own dwelling depending on the circumstances he finds himself in.  Thus God’s house is described as a refuge or a fortress, a citadel, mountain fastness, tower, a stronghold, a sanctuary, a temple (I’m not giving references for these because they are so common) whenever the psalmist is singing in a dangerous situation or feeling under threat.   When you are in danger, being in God’s house is above all to be safe.  God himself is a fortress personified more than once (e.g. Ps 27/28).

Let me dwell in your tent (Ps 60/61)

I started by ascribing the lack of house-references to the psalmists being nomads.  Nomads live in tents (or even caves, Ps 73/74).  Just as our ideas about Christmas are affected by our own context, as I discussed in the bleak midwinter blog, so are our ideas about God, and indeed there is lots of evidence in the psalms for God living in a tent just like the psalmists do.   ‘Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent?’ (Ps 14/15) is a recurring question, meaning exactly the same thing as ‘Who shall climb the hill of the Lord?’ (Ps 23/24), because you can’t go where you aren’t welcome.

Beautiful tents
Glamping, mediaeval style

God’s tent is naturally impressive.  It is made of darkness and clouds (Ps 17/18); he has stretched out the heavens as a tent-cloth (Ps 103/104) – and you imagine a tent made of that beautiful dark blue with little gold stars embroidered on it.   Unlike the beloved painted ceilings or laboriously-placed glowstars  we might have to leave behind in a house-move (one day we’re going to have to abandon the under-the-sea mural in my youngest daughter’s bedroom, and it will be hard),  if it’s a tent, you can take it with you.  The whole world is God’s tent, under his canopy of stars and clouds.

All are welcome

Wherever God is based, tent, fortress, palace or mountain, there is always enough room for those he loves.   Psalm 67/68 lists all those who are welcome : the just, orphans, widows, prisoners. The wicked will perish, but God makes a special home for the lonely and the poor.  The women are settled comfortably and given jewels and finery (well, it’s a start).  Interestingly, as the psalm goes on, the doors get wider and wider.  In v3, the wicked perish at God’s presence,  by v7, rebels can live even though they are confined to a parched land, but by v19 God has taken captives, receiving men in tribute and ‘even those who rebel, into your dwelling, O Lord’.   God is still smiting his foes, but everyone else is welcome as soon as they choose to come, and this is what is striking about the portrayal of Zion : ‘In you all find their home’ (Ps 86/87), and everyone is happy to go there : ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say :’Let us go to God’s house.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem’ (Ps 121/122).

foxes in dens, birds in nests
Look at everything snuggled up in its own place
Once people move to settled homes (NT)

We can see how time has moved on and how lived experience is different in the New Testament, written so much later.  Jesus talks with seeming regret about having no house even though the animals do (Mtt 8 20, ‘Foxes have holes’ ), but Paul seems to have gone through dwelling in a house and now wants to return at least mentally to a more unsettled lifestyle, using the idea of not being settled here on earth to emphasize the need to place your eyes on eternity (Heb 13 14, ‘no abiding city’).  Paradoxically, this still shows how much our homes mean to us, because otherwise we wouldn’t need to be encouraged not to dwell on them even while dwelling in them.

mediaeval bedroom
How tidy a room can be with few possessions beyond a portable mummy

There’s nothing like moving for making you feel detached from your possessions.  You wave them off in their boxes, and especially if there is a long period before you get them back, you manage fine.  When they do reappear and you have to find places to unpack them into, then you wonder why you ever needed more than one white shirt etc.  That is your chance to give things away, if you are in a place with good charity shops or recycling facilities.

Unfortunately for us, books are the big exception.  It takes years to build up your collection, and once you have, you want to keep them.  All.   I am having to manage temporarily  with only a small number of my books, and it’s all right at the moment (I chose very carefully which ones I did bring, plus I have my Kindle), but I packed all the books I use for work becaue I really do need them every day.  They may be old and battered, but they are precious to me, and looking things up on the Net is no substitute (though it sometimes works).  So I hope, in the many mansions Jesus talks about in heaven, there will be plenty of bookshelves.

Monastic book shelves
Some people seem to have enough room on their bookshelves, but we never have had…yet
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Just how bleak was the midwinter?

Does Bethlehem get snow?

Singing and thinking about Christmas carols (as one does a lot at this time of year), sometimes an unexpected thought strikes you. I found myself speculating on the weather in Bethlehem. One carol was talking about the bleak midwinter with snow on snow (and the accompaniment always sounds as though it’s adding another two layers) and another one was talking about soft winds blowing through the olive trees. They couldn’t both be right, I thought. So I started thinking about how our conception of the first Christmas is conditioned by our own experience rather than by what was (probably) true.

Crib scene in the snow
Plenty of snow around here
You have to have snow at Christmas

Weather is the first assumption we make : if you play Word Association Football with anyone and start with the word ‘Christmas’, you will almost certainly get snow as the first or second word following.  Christmas cards are full of snow.  We picture carol singers as rosy-faced, swaddled up in warm layers, standing in the snow to sing, and even singing about snow (especially if they are singing other songs as well as carols : Jingle Bells, White Christmas etc).  (If anyone wants the liturgical music for during Christmas masses, check out the Gentle Guide to my music for that at

Not every Christmas is white

Some of the older carols have more temperate weather.  In While shepherds watched, the shepherds are ‘all seated on the ground’, which they certainly woudn’t be if it was under a foot of snow.  In The first Nowell, they are lying in the fields, which implies a certain degree of relaxation, if not necessarily comfort.  If the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem had meant trekking through deep snow, Joseph and Mary would have planned it differently, especially knowing that the baby might arrive  at some point on the way.  Elizabeth, with her own baby safely delivered a few months back, would surely have expressed a strong opinion against foolhardy travelling.  To go for a more modern carol, Little Donkey has them travelling on a dusty road, which would be easier going than Falklands-style yomping.  There’s lots of snow in Good King Wenceslas, but that, of course, is set in Bohemia (by St Agnes’ fountain, which presumably had frozen up); however, I’m sure that lots of people carry that idea of ‘deep and crisp and even’ across to their mental crib scene.

crib scne inside initial
Definitely a bit of snow, but just lying tidily on the ground
Victorian Christmases always had snow (thank you, Mr Dickens)

It just goes to show how we take our own experience and apply it.  We get cold going to church at Christmas, so Joseph and Mary must have found it cold travelling to Bethlehem.  Brueghel the Elder’s depiction of Joseph and Mary arriving for the census is clearly set in a Flemish winter, and makes you shiver.   A lot of the serious snow is in Victorian carols, and this is the period when so much of the Christmas myth (as opposed to the Bible events) was set into the modern collective consciousness.  See amid the winter’s snow, In the bleak midwinter, both Victorian carols, show clearly  how North European weather has been imposed onto the Middle Eastern narrative. Past three o’clock, despite appearances, is a Victorian piece of writing, with its ‘cold and frosty morning’.  As if to prove my point, this morning in a charity shop, I spotted a snow globe where the scene was a little crib.  I nearly photographed it, but it was such an ugly little object that I couldn’t bring myself to.  Here’s a different snowy crib, though.

back view of angel covered in snow
Flying must be tough when your wings are full of snow
What about round little Bethlehem, long, long ago?

I wanted to look at what the weather might really have been like, but of course there are no weather records that stretch back so far.  Even combining any available evidence and speculation, we can see that there have been fluctuations anyway over the last two or three thousand years.  Nowadays the average winter temperature in the Holy Land is around 7 degrees C – cold, but not snowy.  Then I realised that the best account of what the weather used to be like is in the psalms.  What do they say about the weather?

Evidence of snow in the Psalms

There is almost no snow in the Psalms, and it’s there for its qualities rather than as a real presence : ‘Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow ‘ (Ps 50/51), jewels flashing ‘like snow on Mount Zalmon’ (Ps 67/68), though real snow is mentioned as falling ‘white as wool’ (Ps 147/148) and ‘hail, snow and mist’ are called upon to praise God in Psalm 148/149.  There is rain by the bucketload, storms, earthquakes, hurricanes and other mighty winds, and I’ve already talked about clouds in a previous blog. God hurls down hailstones like crumbs and hoarfrost like ashes in Psalm 147/148, but that’s all the psalm references to actual wintry weather.  Snow turns up occasionally in other books of the Old Testament, and even in the Gospels (the Transfiguration, Matt 23.3 and Mark 9.3),  where it is invoked to show how dazzlingly white Jesus’ garments were.  So everyone hearing the narrative knows about snow and knows what it looks like, otherwise the comparisons wouldn’t work, but it’s not a frequent occurrence as it is in (say) Northumberland in the winter months.

Metaphorical snow still very chilly

T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi (that’s a brilliant link where you can actually hear him reading it aloud) makes it clear what is actually going on here.  The hard snowy journey is a metaphor for life and a difficult quest, but Eliot keeps the snow to the mountains, and shows Bethlehem as below the snowline.  I think this is probably because he was thinking of it as a real geographical place rather than a Christmas card picture.  Even among the Victorian hymn-writers,  the snow at Christmas time is a version of the pathetic fallacy and shows how hard and cold our hearts are before the Christchild comes to soften them.  So the emphasis is on the ‘bleak’ rather than on the midwinter.

crib scene with naked baby
This can’t be real snow or the poor baby would be covered

You really notice how European our imagery is if you happen to spend Christmas near the Equator or in the southern hemisphere.  It isn’t just that you can’t really appreciate Christmas dinner when it’s hot outside; nearly all the familiar songs feel out of place and time.  You can see how Christmas is laid over older celebrations; it’s impossible to imagine celebrating Yule or Saturnalia in the Antipodes (unless you’re making a point).

All out of darkness we have light

The other major image used in carols is of darkness and Christ coming as a light (John 1 of course, Isaiah ditto, but lots of other places too), and certainly in the Northern hemisphere, dark and winter are closely related.  In many older carols, the idea of light breaking through darkness is more common than the snow topos (How brightly shines the morning star, Angels from the realms of glory, Silent Night (‘Son of God, love’s pure light /Radiant beams from thy holy face’), the ‘bright sky’ in Away in a Manger, and there’s a lovely old carol called O Babe divine (described as ‘Old English adapted’), where the image keeps repeating : ‘O holy child, my dim heart’s gleam,/O brighter than the sunny beam! […..]O prince of peace, my dark soul’s light! /Thou art a day without a night’.  This neatly carries us back to another carol, As with gladness men of old, which takes its central image of the last verse straight out of Revelation : ‘In the heavenly country bright need they no created light, /Thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down’.

Snow’s significance can easily melt away

Our associations are precious and important to us, and of course we can picture Christmas any way we like.  We deck our mental cribs with holly and have robins hopping around outside them as they do in our own garden because we want Jesus to be as close to us as possible.  The event was a real historical event, but what is important for me is how it affects me here and now.  It doesn’t matter whether there was real snow at the first Christmas, but whether we celebrate it nowadays with warm hearts, which is exactly the point which Christina Rosetti is making in In the bleak midwinter.  The danger for us all is brilliantly encapsulated by C.S. Lewis.  A fallen world without hope is ‘always winter and never Christmas’.  That’s a terrible thought, and thank God, we don’t need to worry about it.  Real tidings of comfort and joy.  Merry Christmas.

decorated mediaeval hedghog
Christmas decorations: everyone can do their bit


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