A Musing about the Bleak Midwinter 12/14/2022
One of my favorite Christmas songs is In the Bleak Midwinter. I know it is an unusual choice. It is not as joyful and bouncy as songs like O Come All Ye Faith Faithful and Angels we have Heard n High. And it certainly doesn’t provide the same emotional response as Silent Night does.
In fact, the song has a melancholy feel to it. The melody creates a somber mood and is used to match the seriousness found in the lyrics. The song is far different than most Christmas tunes and while you may hear it every once in a while, on the radio it will never compete with Jingle Bell Rock or O Holy Night.
That said it remains one of my favorites.
The tune for the song was written well after the lyrics because In the Bleak Midwinter was originally a poem. It was written by noted author Christina Rossetti, who was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets and this particular poem depicting the nativity scene was a commissioned work first published in 1872 in the January edition of Scribner’s Monthly. Interestingly this poem was originally entitled ‘A Christmas Carol’ though it would be more than three decades before it was put to music.
It was 1906 when Gustav Theodore Holst added music specifically for this poem and it quickly grew in popularity and has been included in hymnals ever since this time.
While the poem as published contained five stanzas, the hymn contains only 4 of them. The third verse which includes a reference to breastfeeding was I guess too provocative for the early 1900s and the church.
I love the way the song comes together with words and melody seamlessly intertwining.
The song's elegance lies in its simplicity. In stark contrast to palatial palaces and even the angels’ regal proclamations with cornets and trumpets stands the stable. There on an ordinary bleak midwinter's night, we discover this place, and this simplicity is 'enough' for the baby Jesus. This carol doesn't shout from the mountaintops and heavens about Christmas and the joy of the king of kings coming to earth.
Instead, the words focus on the simplest yet truest gift of all given in this child who is Immanuel God with us. And that gift is love.
I particularly love the 3rd verse of the hymn.
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.
Why does that stanza hit home with me so powerfully?
Simply stated, this stanza reminds me that even with angels all around, and shepherds coming with stories of incredible wonder, and kings coming with expensive gifts what the baby needed and wanted was simply the loving touch of another. In this case, it was the kiss of his mother – Mary.
That no gift however expensive or extravagant, was as powerful as that of love – given freely with no strings attached.
What this verse reminds me is that what this world needs most and what God wants most from me is not my limited talents, but my love extravagantly given to God and God’s creation.
The final verse says it so succinctly.
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 can I give Him, I can give my heart.
At this Christmas time may we not get wrapped up in the ribbons and bows and extravagance of the season, but may we remember love given simply to us in a babe in on a bleak midwinters night, and may we then share that love by simply reaching out to others.
Friends Christmas - it is just that simple and it is just that hard.
I wanted to include the poem in its entirety and a link to version of it.
I have two I like. One is by the late Presbyterian missionaries’ kid David M Bailey https://youtu.be/ZWsMbXZbjVI
The other is by a guy named James Taylor. https://youtu.be/fmikN0XrRpE
I hope you enjoy them both.
In The Bleak Midwinter
1. 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.
2. 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.
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 mother1 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.