This Advent season I’ve been drawn to a Christmas hymn I was previously unfamiliar with. Since many Christmas songs can lose their punch due to being so familiar, I share these reflections in hope that you, also, can worship the Christ child as if it were your first time hearing of his birth.
The song is called “In the Bleak Midwinter”, and can be heard here and here.
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.
As a listener from the Midwest, I can appreciate the setting of this song. Cold, icy earth. Yes, that is familiar. Especially at Christmas time.
But more than mere associations with Christmas, it also creates a picture of bleakness. The setting is one of cold, weary sorrow. This is the state of our world; and of our hearts. The human experience, while sometimes offering glimpses of joy, is largely one of pain, loss, toil, and conflict. The first verse sympathizes with listeners who are hurting, and makes us long for hope.
Notice also, there is no mention of God in this verse.
Only the cold, abandoned earth.
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.
Our gaze is immediately, almost violently, shifted to God. And not just God, but God in heaven. This is the opposite of the cold, weary earth. God is on his throne. It almost feels as if I should shield my eyes. The heat of heaven radiates as all of creation flees away at his presence. In an instant, we’ve gone from an icy pond to a boiling pot in a microwave.
And yet, the throne of heaven cannot contain him. His longing for humanity draws him out of heaven into the bleak midwinter of earth.
He comes to a stable. It isn’t much, but it will suffice.
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.
The third verse begins by pulling back the curtain of the cold earth and revealing the spiritual truth behind it. Dreariness and death are not the only forces at work on this day. A great worship service is under way. The loftiest heavenly creatures are conjured up to display the majesty of the God-child.
And then a contrast is given; a contrast so massive that it stirs the heart and boggles the mind. While God’s grandest creatures worship the child in the heavenly realms, only a teenage girl, who just completed the labors of childbirth, worships him on earth.
She is vulnerable, exhausted; yet exults in her child. She worships him with a kiss. He is rightly called, “the beloved”. Her beloved, and ours.
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.
Another turn takes place. We move from the ancient story of heaven and earth, suddenly, to “I”.
What can I give him?
That we would yearn to give him something, anything, simply because it is due to him, is assumed.
But the antiquated setting of the song remains. “I” am not a modern person, but a shepherd, or a wise man. I am part of the story. The nearly unnoticeable mingling of Christ’s story and ours is what makes this final verse so effective.
It concludes with a gift that anyone can, and must, bring. Not a possession; not a gift from our wealth.
It is the gift of our own selves. Our very lives, thrown before the feet of a child.
It isn’t much, but it will suffice.