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In the bleak midwinter


Wales / Image: ? Bernard Wellings, Wales Directory

The other day a countryman told me that the snow still icily patching the ground was a sign of more snow to come. We shall see.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) reflected this idea in her poem 'In the Bleak Midwinter'. Simultaneously she evoked one winter long ago and the years and centuries since, snow falling 'snow on snow'.

Placing us in the cold midwinter that we know creates a bridge to the long ago wintertide stable. (For the scientifically inclined, Bethlehem temperatures are 6 degrees Celsius (42 F) today with hail showers expected tomorrow.)

We stand in the cold of the stable. Around us are the quiet, ruminating animals. Before us is the tired, blissful mother. Gazing at us is the child. His gentle command to love is guiding shepherds, wise men and generations of men and women.

Inevitably men and women fail sometimes to love. Wonderfully we also succeed.

There are many paradoxes at the heart of Christ's teaching, and they frighten some people. "Lose your life to save it" might be the most frightening. That it is also true cannot be known except in the doing.

Rossetti understood the paradoxes at the heart of Christ's teaching. In her poem, you and I are poor, and the only thing we can give is our heart. She makes it seem easy and right. She does not need to add that by giving our heart, we will be immeasurably enriched.

In the Bleak Midwinter has become one of our favourite carols. Here it is sung at Gloucester Cathedral.

The music is by Gustav Holst. The carol was later set to music by Harold Darke. Kings College Choir, Cambridge, sings the Darke version 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.

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
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubin 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.

Comments (1)

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Thanks for putting this up again, Cat -- I'd forgotten where 'snow on snow' came from (though I should have remembered -- sang it often enough at school...).

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