Upon recently hearing Gustav Holst’s lavish rendition of Christina Rossetti’s 1870s poem ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, I was taken right back to my childhood, in particular, to a dramatic re-enactment of the Nativity story that my dad used to play on a record album.  I knew the narrative well enough from the teachings in our Christian church, but the most lasting impression I have of that album came rushing back to me upon hearing this hymn – the magic of a cold desert night with only the light of the stars in the heavens – a magic punctuated by a miracle birth.

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.

Rossetti’s writing begins with the magic, force, and even harsh alienation of nature.  Earth and water are transformed by winter’s power. Layers of snow are stacked up like layers of time.

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.

In the next verse, a power more potent and vast than nature is He who created nature, Our God.  Perhaps Rossetti’s word play is deliberate here, where ‘stable’ can refer to the physical resting place of Jesus and also to the stability of God’s grace in such a harsh setting.

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.

The narrative takes on a distillation from the awesome power of nature and its creator to the pure simplicity of a babe.  Jesus is heralded by the cherubim and angels, yet nourished by mother’s milk and hay, symbols of the life-giving properties of nature.

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.

Despite the rejoicing of the heavenly hosts, the purest contact with this child is the singularity of a mother’s kiss – his most precious connection is with Mary on the earthly plane.

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.

From this sense of awe and human connection, the narrative expands to a universally personal observation, and invites us to ponder our own contribution to such a miracle.  Christian Rossetti, who lived in poverty most of her life, reminds us of the connection we have with God from within – the heart. The same heart we can offer to one another, without bound or end, this holiday season and throughout the coming year.

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Michael Heminger

Michael Heminger

Free Lance Author (Spiritual)

Michael Heminger is a free lance writer who is living the second half of his life in Wisconsin, USA. He is an expert in recorded music and holds degrees in Literature and Journalism from Indiana University. His interests include all matters of the mind and spirit, cats, healing, and most recently, recorded music of the 1920s. You may reach him here.