In The Bleak Midwinter
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Tune: CRANHAM, Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934)
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter Long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel Which adore.
Angels and archangels May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim Thronged the air,
But only His mother In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved With a kiss.
What can I give Him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.
In The Bleak Midwinter written by Christina Rossetti was first published as a poem in the 1872 edition of Scribner’s Monthly and originally titled “A Christmas Carol”. The title was changed to “In The Bleak Midwinter”, taken from the opening line, when it was later published in the English Hymnal in 1906 and set to the tune CRANHAM. There are five verses in the full text with the third verse being frequently omitted. The tune CRANHAM, by the English composer Gustav Holst, is the only one where the complete hymn is sung with all five verses.
Rossetti has used a very creative poetic device in the story telling by placing the birth of Christ in a snowy winter setting. This, at first, seems odd since the historical location and milder climate of Palestine is where the actual birth took place. Perhaps Rossetti was seeking to demonstrate in a more relatable sense the stark difference of a harsh, fallen world as compared to Christ’s home in heaven. His journey on Earth would begin in a simple wooden manger and would end in the crucifixion upon a wooden cross. The challenge we are given in this most simple telling of the nativity story, stripped of all the typical celebration and extravagance of the season, is that in the end all we have to truly give is our heart.
In The Bleak Midwinter has become one of my favorite Christmas Carols over the years. I love that it highlights the humble simplicity of the scene and presents a stark contrast to all the glitter and consumerism that we have come to associate with this season. As we now reflect on this season, how did we prepare ourselves during this advent time to anticipate The Saviour – did we spend our days demonstrating generosity and love? More importantly, how are we preparing ourselves to anticipate His return in all that we will spend our time doing in the coming year? As the final verse asks, “Yet what can I give Him? Give my heart”, let us ask how we can demonstrate this every day of the year.
I have also discovered some deeper insights this year regarding the significance of the nativity and the manger setting. When we look at the account in the Gospel of Luke and the prophecy in Micah 4:8, we see there is much more going on in this setting and the significance of the location for Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.
From Luke chapter 2:
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And in Micah 4:8, we find this prophecy of the location of Christ’s birth: “And thou, O tower of the flock the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.”
It is here where the sacrificial lambs were birthed for the Passover celebrations. The lambs were birthed and cared for within the area of the Tower of Migdal Eder referenced in Micah. The lambs were wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger where they were cared for and then watched over by the Priestly Shepherds. For the lambs according to Levitical law had to be ceremonially clean and without spot or blemish. Jesus was born in the same place as all the unspotted lambs that were designated for the Temple sacrifice. And as Christ came as the Lamb of God, unblemished and without sin, to be the final sacrifice for us all, He would also become the Great Shepherd who would watch over His flock and be King, Comforter and Messiah forever.
So, as Christina Rossetti has captured this scene in her simple Christmas Carol, let us sing it and remember that even in the bleak midwinter of our lives, we have a Saviour, Christ the King, the unblemished and perfect Lamb of God. He has given us life and we can give Him our heart.
Our most gracious and Heavenly Father, we humble ourselves in adoration of Your great and perfect plan to redeem us through Your sovereign grace. This plan was manifested in the humble and lowly birth of Your Son, Jesus Christ, made flesh, yet without sin, in a simple manger. Let us worship and bow down in Your presence and remember Your love that is so great there is no length to which You will not go to pursue and redeem Your sons and daughters. We ask Your favor and anointing in all that we do during this season, that we would host Your presence well, Holy Spirit, and that we would reflect Your glory and Your love to all mankind. Prepare our hearts to be generous in giving, merciful in forgiving and gracious in sharing for all the journeys that lay ahead of us in the coming year. Let us be messengers of Your peace, bringing good news and hope to a dying world filled with fear. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
King's College Cambridge 2014 In the Bleak Midwinter Gustav Holst