Preparing a Christmas sermon I came across this line from the poem Ring Out, Wild Bells by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
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.
Being no great lover of poetry I wouldn’t claim to have the expertise to interpret what Tennyson was trying to say, but permit me to share what he says to me.
To me Ring Out Wild Bells is a humanist poem in the best sense of the word. It has an optimistic view of humanity grounded in a belief that humanity as Imago Dei, God’s Vice Regent on earth; princes of creation. Which is not to say that it’s naive. Tennyson is more famous for writing the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. In that poem he describes the grim picture of 600 men riding into carnage, reeling from,
‘the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.’
But while Tennyson knew very well ‘the want, the care and the sin’ of this world it didn’t stop him believing in man’s ability to be better nor of resolving to ‘ring out those crimes and ring in better times’.
But who is the ‘fuller minstrel’? I think Tennyson is talking about (what we would call today) ‘being the best we can be’. But as a Christian thinking of the incarnation could Christmas itself has some claim to be a fuller minstrel?
Although we sing ‘how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’, Christmas is actually a pretty musical time. On being told that God would intervene in the world, Zechariah sang. So did Mary. Simeon rejoiced. So did Anna. We sing every year that, ‘while shepherds watched the flocks by night all seated on the ground’, suddenly there ‘appeared a shining throng of angels praising God and thus addressed their joyful song’. If you find yourself absent-mindedly humming the songs you’ve heard while Christmas shopping you will be able to imagine how the shepherds might have sung that first Christmas Carol long after they’d seen the baby Jesus. So at this time of year many are asking that Christmas be our fuller minstrel, coming into the cold dark winter and filling us with hope.
But maybe Tennyson means something more still. Why shouldn’t we consider Christ himself the minstrel? Isn’t that after all what the psalmist is alluding to in Psalm 45 when he declares: ‘my heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer’ or what he explicitly states in Psalm 40 when he praises God for putting ‘a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God”?
I have a friend, a new Christian, who is extremely pessimistic about the future. Suddenly aware of Jesus and eager for his return, my friend sees everything in terms of the end days and to be fair there is plenty around at the moment that if we were in Jesus’ position we would be eager to come back to judge.
I’m aware that it would be wrong of me to counsel him that the end is still a long way off. After all Christ will come like a thief in the night and nobody knows when that will be. Who is to say he will not come between me typing this and you reading it? (Although if you’ve read this, this sentence is defunct!). Nor should I pretend to my friend that everything in this world is hunky dory. We are surrounded by greed and callousness. Moreover ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’
And yet Christmas is our reminder that our ‘fuller minstrel’ has come. His song has begun and can’t be undone. Light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. So I want to say to my friend, and to you too, that while Christmas is not everything (we wait for Easter) it is not nothing.
So fear not. The fuller minstrel has come. For some he has filled the deadening silence of depression with music. For others he has drowned out the noise of fear. Still others hear his music above the siren song of the world. To all who believe he has put a new song in their mouths.
So with that song on our lips, may we resolve with Tennyson to,
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.