The time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.Luke 2:6-7
In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti
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. 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. Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day, Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay; Enough for Him, whom angels fall before, The ox and ass and camel which adore. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; But His mother only, 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.
“In the bleak midwinter” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a beloved Christmas carol, does it? It sounds rather, well, bleak. But it is the beginning of this powerful poem written by the 19th century poet, Christina Rossetti, and set to music by Gustav Holst, and it is one of my favorites. This poem, or carol, has been running through my mind this season, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about it here.
And maybe it has been on my mind because these opening words – “in a bleak midwinter” – seem to describe what we are going through this year. We are in our own bleak midwinter, you might say – in the midst of a pandemic that has changed how we live more than anything else in my lifetime. We all face a variety of crises in our lives, to be sure, but this particular one we are all facing together. So, in this bleak midwinter in which we all find ourselves, what can this inspiring poem teach us?
Well, one of the reasons that I like this poem so much is simply that it tells the truth. A Christmas carol that opens with the word “bleak” is certainly doing that. This poem, like a good country song, offers us the truth.
But is it really true that Jesus was born in a bleak midwinter? We actually don’t know for sure. In fact, we don’t even know when Jesus was born. The Gospels do not tell us; the Bible does not tell us. There are traditional reasons floating around for why we celebrate it on December 25th, including the possibility that the church simply chose this time of year in order to offer a Christian alternative to the Roman festival of Saturnalia. But I prefer another traditional explanation, which is tied to an ancient Jewish tradition that great prophets die on the same day that they were conceived. We know that Jesus died on Good Friday, before the Passover. So we have a pretty good idea of the date for his death, around the end of March. That is when the church also celebrates the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she would give birth to a son. In other words, that is the traditional date of Jesus’s conception, either because it was 9 months before Christmas, or because it was the day of his eventual death, or both. So, you add nine months to that and get December 25th. I like that explanation, even though it’s not defensible for a historical standpoint.
But regardless of exactly when Jesus was born, the first Christmas was, without a doubt, a bleak one. After a strenuous journey of 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary arrived, very tired, and, in her case, very pregnant. Perhaps she rode a donkey. Perhaps she walked the whole way. We don’t know, but either way, it was an incredibly difficult journey. And a necessary one because of the decree that went out from Emperor Augustus.
Joseph and Mary weren’t the first to arrive back in Bethlehem for this registration, so when they got there, they found no room for them in the inn. The time came for Mary to give birth. Away from family, no hospital, and not even a comfortable bed. There, with the animals, was born God’s beloved son, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Mary, no doubt exhausted, concerned for her son, and wondering why God would allow that to happen. Joseph, no doubt feeling helpless, and troubled that he could provide no better place for his young family. It was a bleak midwinter, indeed, whenever it took place. But it sufficed.
“In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed / the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. / Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day / Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay; / Enough for Him, whom angels fall before, / The ox and ass and camel which adore.”
These words remind us of how incredible this birth was. God’s angels worshiping at this mangerful of hay; ox and ass and camel there with these incredible heavenly beings, with these cherubim and seraphim and angels and archangels. All there to worship and adore this newborn child, God’s very son, the firstborn of all creation, laying on that humble throne.
All of creation, you might say, were united in their worship of this child. But “His mother only,” writes the poet, “in her maiden bliss / Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.” The tender love of a mother for her newborn, there in that bleak midwinter moment. A love that would follow him all the way to the cross, where Mary would have her heart pierced in grief. Love opens us up to this pain and this heartache. For Mary, and for us. But also for God, who allowed this beautiful child to be born into this cold, fallen world. Born in our bleak midwinter to save us in love.
How can we ever thank our God for this? Mary gives her son, our Savior, a love like no other. But what can we give? “What can I give Him, poor as I am?,” asks the poet. And the answer:
“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.”
We can give our heart to this child. We can give ourselves. We can love this child with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And that is all that he ever wants. Our love. As Henri Nouwen puts it, “God loves me from all eternity to all eternity. Life, this little bit of life — thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years, is not very long. It’s just one little chance for us to say ‘Yes’ to them, ‘We love you too’.” This little bit of life is our chance to say to God, with all that we are, “I love you, too.”
In this bleak midwinter of ours, let us come to the manger once again, and find love, peace, and joy in this child – a love and a peace and a joy like no other. Bleak no longer, this midwinter of ours, because this child has been born for us, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace. Amen