Christina Rossetti was the daughter of an Italian refugee. She was raised as a High Church Anglican and broke off her engagement when her fiance converted to Catholicism. She wrote this hymn as a poem and it didn’t appear in a hymnbook until 1906 – after she’d died. The English Hymnal editors paired the poem with the tune by Holst and it has remained remarkably popular ever since.
Philippians 2: 5 – 11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In the Bleak Mid Winter Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
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.
Here we have two beautiful pieces of poetry, both of which are eminently suitable for Christmastide.
Unlike many other passages in Philippians Paul is not focussing on joy here. Instead he focusses on the Son of God, one with God in all things (“hands that flung stars into space”), dwelling in the heavens, choosing to condescend and live the life of a first century Palestinian man. Paul focusses on the One who, although given every opportunity to avoid it, submitted to torture and death (“to cruel nails surrendered”).
Yet, as we read, Jesus’ ministry did not stop there. Because, as we know, the grave was no match for the Son of God. God raised Him up, giving Him the Name above all names (“’tis the Father’s pleasure we should call Him Lord”).
But none of this would have happened had Jesus not condescended to live our life. None of this would have happened if God had not chosen to “enter our world, His glory veiled”.
Today’s Christmas carol, Victorian yuletide imagery aside (was it really snowing in Bethlehem?), focusses on Christ’s coming to earth as a babe. It focusses on His physical and practical needs (“a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”).
But I think the carol is about much more than wintery Palestine, or the various animals gathered around the manger. I think it shows how God did not choose to redeem the world through gifts; nor did He choose to redeem the world through money, or fine oratory, or complex law books. Instead He chose to redeem the world through flesh and blood, through the giving of a heart – the life of One for the lives of all. We too, in the confused world in which we live, can only hope to minister effectively and faithfully if we are ready to give our hearts in His service.
Lord of the manger and stranger, of the wintry scene and the stark Cross, of the orphan and sick, of light and love, Hear us as we pray. Grant us Your grace, that we may offer our hearts and lives to You, as we seek to proclaim Your Son through our words and deeds. Amen
Michael RJ Topple, Lay Preacher and Elder of Chappel URC