“In the Bleak Midwinter” is a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti, commonly performed as a Christmas carol. The poem was published in 1872. In 1906, the composer Gustav Holst composed a setting of Rossetti’s words (titled “Cranham”) in The English Hymnal which is sung throughout the world. You can hear it sung here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RihuTtICxYo
In the bleak midwinter 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 midwinter, long ago.
2 Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign: in the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
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.
The Situation: A Bleak Mid-Winter
Christina Rossetti was a poet, and a highly renowned one according to Wikipedia. I wonder if she knew anything about the climate of first century Palestine, and how unlikely a deep frost would have been! But that is not the point. She is writing poetically about a life-situation. Reading about her, I can see that there must have been times when she felt as though life was bleak, hard, frosty and cold.
God’s Action: A Stable-Place Sufficed
How well she captures the essence of God’s action in Christ. Breaking out of the glory of heaven, breaking into the frosty reality of human life, and doing this as a baby in a stable-place, with all the connotations of poverty that Christmas sermons explore. This is ultimate humility. And it is enough. It sufficed. It suffices.
Our Response: Give My Heart
She has been building up to this all through the poem: the situation of bleakness; the absolute wonder of God Almighty’s transformational presence; and the responses of angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, ox, ass, camel, mother, shepherd, and wise-man. In the face of this colossal canvas of incarnational grace, “What” she asks, “can I give him, poor as I am?”
Sometimes, caught up in the spiritual warmth and energy of Carol Services, I have found her answer to be exactly what I want to say too. “Give my heart”. Gustav Holst’s music contributes to the emotive power of this conclusion. Such a personal response is one of the ways in which worship helps to strengthen our faith and commitment.
But emotive responses can fade in ordinary life. Today’s reading from Philippians helps. What does it mean to give my heart? It means letting the same mind be in me that was in Christ Jesus (2:5).
May the mind of Christ, my Saviour, Live in me from day to day, By His love and power controlling All I do and say.
Kate Barclay Wilkinson (1859 – 1928)
The Rev’d Dr Gwen Collins, retired minister, Avenue St Andrew’s United Reformed Church