Posted by: rcottrill | July 11, 2014

In the Bleak Midwinter

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Words: Christina Georgina Rossetti (b. Dec. 5, 1830; d. Dec. 29, 1894)
Music: Cranham, by Gustav Theodore Holst (b. Sept. 21, 1874; d. May 25, 1934)

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Note: The text was written some time before 1872, in response to a magazine’s request for a Christmas poem. Gustav Holst’s tune was composed in 1906, specifically for the text. Stanza 3 is not generally used today in the Christmas hymn. It says:

CH-3) 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.

From her awareness of the cold and snowy Decembers in her native England, Rossetti described the scene in the Holy Land in those terms. However, recent scholarship suggests that Christ was more likely born in late September, since the weather became too wet and cold after that for shepherds to pasture their sheep out in the open fields. Nevertheless, the frozen, stone-hard earth works as a poetic image of the unreceptive world Christ entered, where even “His own did not received Him” (Jn. 1:11).

CH-1) 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.

Christina Rossetti had two serious suitors whom she turned down on the basis of her religious convictions. She never married. As to her social convictions, she was against military aggression, the slavery in the American south, and cruelty to animals. Rossetti also opposed the exploitation of women as prostitutes, and was involved for many years with a charity that ministered to those who had broken free of this illicit trade.

Some have described the author as an early feminist, who lived long before that became a movement. In her day, women were often viewed as second class citizens. The doors to higher education and to many professions were closed to them. This gives her final stanza a personal poignancy. Yet there’s a real sense in which none of us, as believers, has anything to give that is worthy of the Lord Jesus. All we can do is offer ourselves to Him as “living sacrifices,” ready to do His will (Rom. 12:1)

CH 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.

Christina Rosetti speaks with firm confidence in CH-2, when she identifies the Babe in Bethlehem’s manger. This is no sentimental story sustained by tradition. It is the dramatic incarnation of Deity.

¤ He is the Lord Jesus Christ. That triple title is used of Him 82 times in the New Testament. He is Lord–Master, sovereign; He is Jesus–meaning the Lord (Jehovah) saves; and He is Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah of Israel. In Him we have our eternal salvation (Acts 16:31; Rom. 5:1; I Cor. 15:57; II Cor. 8:9).

¤ He is God Almighty (Matt. 28:18; Jn. 5:23; Heb. 1:8).

¤ My thought regarding the line, “Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain,” is that it signifies Christ is greater than both heaven and earth (because He is the Creator of all, Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16).

¤ He is coming again to reign (Rev. 19:11-16).

¤ After His coming, the present earth and heavens will be destroyed, and replaced by a new heavens and new earth (Rev. 20:11; 21:1).

CH-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.

The lovely imagery of CH-4 shows the condescension and humbling of the Son of God. Worthy of angels’ worship, the infant Jesus is tenderly kissed by a loving mother.

CH-4) 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.

1) Is this a carol you commonly use at the Christmas season?

2) Can you state in one sentence what it is that Christina Rosetti particularly wants to tell us through this hymn?



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