"In the Bleak Midwinter"

Monday, December 17, 2012

The year my family lived in Scotland, we spent our Christmas holiday on the Isle of Tiree, where my father earned a small stipend by preaching at the churches scattered around the island. Tiree was sparsely populated and the congregations were small, but the people were warm and friendly.

The picture shows the house we rented for our brief stay.

Before we even left for Tiree, I discovered several new Christmas carols. Three became favorites, and I'm going to spend the next few weeks talking about them.

Two carols are very strong theologically, so I'll save them for the two Mondays surrounding Christmas. I'll start with the weakest of the three.

"In the Bleak Midwinter" has plenty of faults. First, the winter that Christina Rossetti wrote about resembles the ones she knew in England, not the kind they have in Bethlehem. Second, nobody knows what month Jesus was born in, but chances are it wasn't during the winter. Still, something in the song spoke to me.

Maybe it was because it is so singable, or it could have been the melody (Cranham, by Gustav Holst). Then again, it could have been that, as a ten-year-old who had grown up in church, I was surprised to find a popular Christmas carol I didn't know.

Or maybe it was because the Sunday School I often attended used the last verse as its offertory. And that is the best verse of the carol from a theological standpoint.

Here are the words. Enjoy the first three stanzas, but focus on the fourth.

In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty winds 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. 
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. 
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air--
But His mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshiped 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.*
 And your heart is enough.

* As printed in The Church Hymnary, Revised Edition (Oxford University Press, 1927).

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