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In The Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter

I love discovering new Christmas music. As the praise leader of a baptist church, I was accustomed to singing the common songs that everyone expected. I was thankfully paired with musicians who would allow me to fiddle with songs and pianists to teach me new songs.

Over the course of those five years, I learned a number of new songs. My joy for discovering new music has been growing ever since. It is a phenomenal experience to "discover" a song once popular centuries (or even mere decades) ago. Beautiful gems are lost in the girth of commercialized favorites. One such new discovery is "In the Bleak Midwinter."

A Christmas poem from Christina Rossetti, the words were set to music and included in a couple hymnals. The poem starts out like a dystopian panorama,

"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."

The first time I heard the song, the dramatic emphasis of "snow on snow, snow on snow" struck me as foreign — we don't get much snow in Austin, Texas.  And yet, I could feel it. A darkness of iron, stone, and creation moaning. While most renditions of the song proceed to the fourth and fifth verse, it is the simpleness of the second and third that make the song valuable to me,

"Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore."

There in the midst of this bleak outlook comes God. Can you feel the terror of heaven and earth fleeing in the incarnation? Or like the gospel narrative are you stunned to see "A stable-place sufficed The Lord God Almighty?" This is the Christmas miracle. Always in a rush to get to the cross, we refuse to acknowledge that God deemed this necessary. This humility was not merely for our instruction but necessary for our salvation. Make no mistake, the baby in the manger is the Son of God committed to the war path of death. But the Son of God suffering on the cross was also the baby dependent on "a breastful of milk."

The rest of the song is a beautiful parade of gifts presented to Jesus,

"Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful 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,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air -
But only His mother
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."

The creative license of Mary worshiping Christ with a kissing is moving. The image of a pacified Christ being adored by the angels requires us to acknowledge the fullness of the incarnation.

All in all, In the Bleak Midwinter does not provide some deep Christian theology or truth. Just a quiet, sober reminder of the state of earth (in its darkness) and the state of Christ (in His infancy) at the dawn of "Christmas." That makes for a good song.

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