The world is pressing in again, and disappointments have come along in twenty-four hours; a postponed operation for my father, who was gowned and ready for theatre – no Christmas visit now, time to isolate – and a cancelled concert for Eliott that was to incorporate his uni audition, a solo guitar piece that he’s lived and breathed for weeks. Then news of Maddy’s friend stranded in uni accommodation as her flat-mate tests positive for Covid… no family Christmas for her. Unwelcome changes, and not just for us, as the nation begins to panic, and Covid restrictions impinge on yet another Christmas.
Yesterday a cold fog enveloped the village and we hunkered indoors; even the solace in roaming felt limited. The fog is still visible in the glow from the streetlamps, but I’ve settled again in the red chair beneath the window and have spent time with the one who holds us, and whom we take all these problems to.
While there are stirrings upstairs I enjoy the quiet a little longer. As I sit, a robin starts singing outside the window, as he has in recent days. In the dark, in the stillness, I can’t see him, yet he has my full attention – this is a well-rehearsed song, and perhaps I’m the only one to hear it, as he twills into the cold, dispiriting air, just metres from my head.
I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’ – a cousin of our hopeful robin. As the poem progresses, we read:
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
The difference, of course, between me and Hardy (putting aside his brilliance as a writer against my own efforts) is this: there is a ‘blessed Hope’ and I am not ‘unaware’. I have found God to be all-knowing and all-loving, and the robin’s song does remind me to look up and to be of good cheer.
Sometimes we need to take the lead, and there are enough voices of discouragement out there right now, while this lone robin’s simple song tells me to pull myself together. At this time of year, an early bird singing outside a window is likely to be a robin, and of course we can acquaint ourselves with this particular song. Like him, shouldn’t we be the first to proclaim our offer of hope? To reassure others that all is not lost? That a new day beckons, that it’s worth picking ourselves up and going on? While he may only be singing to re-establish a bond or to proclaim his territory, he is getting on with it, and just the brilliance of his song piercing through the night air, not waiting for dawn, not put off by low light, encourages me. I believe our creator God knew these moments would feel uplifting, and in his goodness he made us a world that we can delight in and enjoy, when personal or even national circumstances may depress us.
I’m wondering if there is, perhaps, a beauty in the distilling of nature, in the absence of so much of what we enjoy – the flowers, the sunshine, the multitude of summer birds and their song – in having to wait, like small children caught up in the anticipation of Christmas day? This robin’s song is all the more precious because these encounters feel rare at this point in the year. The robin, our national bird and ever hopeful songster, has become something of an emblem in December.
I’ll leave you with a fact about him to ponder, whether you spot him today on a Christmas card or a fence post, and it’s this: every individual robin bears ‘a unique breast pattern, which means they can be identified as individuals’; something like our fingerprints, I guess. How wildly creative is our God, to lavish such attentive detail on these little birds that to us look the same, for even experts struggle to tell male and female apart. For what purpose is the ‘bespokeness’ other than his sheer delight in creation? Or can robins identify each other in this way?
The robin is not simple at all but exquisite, and ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’.
How much more so are we. As his people, it’s vital that we continue to offer him praise and speak out our eternal hope, as Christmas starts to look a little different to how we planned it this year.
“Let your unfailing love surround us, LORD, for our hope is in you alone.’
 The Nation’s Favourite Bird: On 7th May 2015, the day of the general election, another vote was taking place, in which the robin received over 34% of votes. Over 200,000 voters gave their opinions here, and I myself was one of them! Interestingly, back on December 15th 1960, the robin was voted for as Britain’s National Bird, too.