In The Bleak Midwinter

I’m sticking with the themes of the Epiphany season. On Sunday I took as my sermon topic: why I never choose ‘We Three Kings’ for carol services. Put simply, the Bible doesn’t say they were kings nor that there were three of them… There’s also no mention of camels or stables and the magi almost certainly didn’t come across the shepherds, as they do in our nativity plays. But there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they offer fertile soil for reflection. Gold is a gift fit for a king; incense is offered to God; and myrrh speaks of both healing and anointing for death. The magi are exotic strangers who are drawn by a star to the little one who is the Light of the World, showing that God’s plan for the world isn’t limited to his people, the Jews. The magi are foreigners, gentiles. They too are brought in to the story of the incarnation.

So, today my theme is: why I almost never pick ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, despite it being a favourite of just about everybody. It has a fabulous tune, by Gustav Holst, who was born in Cheltenham. The tune is called Cranham, which is the name of the Gloucestershire village where Holst lived when he composed it. The words are by Christina Rossetti:

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.

First of all, we don’t know when Jesus was born and it is unlikely to have been during the winter, bleak or otherwise. The shepherds were out on the hills at night, which suggests that it was not winter and that it was not bleak. And if it was in the winter, how much snow do you think there was in Bethlehem? It does apparently sometimes snow in Bethlehem in winter but it’s rare. And, if it happened when Jesus was born, you would have thought that either Matthew or Luke might have mentioned it. But they didn’t. So, no ‘snow on snow’.

But I guess that Christina Rossetti knew that. What she did is what artists have always done: she transposed the story of the nativity into her own world. White Christmases were more common in the nineteenth century than they are today (because of a ‘little ice age’ that ended around the 1850s). Climate change means that our winters are increasingly likely to be warmer and wetter than they were in Rossetti’s day. There’s something about bringing the gospel into our own time and culture that makes sense: the incarnation means that God makes himself known in human flesh, in a particular place at a particular time, but in doing so, God is made known in all places and at all times.

I recently wasted a couple of minutes watching a video online in which an animated Martin Luther argues with a couple of Anglicans over writing a Christmas hymn. Luther wants to write about the doctrine of the incarnation and God’s plan to redeem humanity. The English hymn writers want to sing about snow and livestock.

But there’s theological reflection in Rossetti’s poem, as well as the description of meteorological phenomena. King Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, asks:

‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’
1 Kings 8.27

The God who cannot be contained by heaven, let alone a temple built by human hands, deigns to dwell in a mere stable-place and to be content with “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”. We’ll skip over the fact that the Gospels don’t actually mention a stable, nor the “ox and ass and camel which adore”, and dwell on the humility which God shows in coming among us as that most vulnerable creature, a new born human child, born in poverty. I also love the tenderness of the description of his mother worshipping her Beloved “with a kiss”, while angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim throng the air.

But the crunch comes with the final verse and this is what makes the hymn work in worship, despite the dubious meteorology and livestock references:

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.

At the epiphany we think of the magi with their gifts, honouring the new born King. With them we recognise that the greatest gift of all is the humble child in whom God is made known. And with Christina Rossetti we wonder what it is that we can give in return for such a gift. Shepherds and wise men had the opportunity to worship the infant King:

Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

Alan Jewell

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