This Advent season I am going to reflect on a hymn or carol daily as part of my spiritual practices. I am not sure where all these reflections will take me, but in conversation with my spiritual director, I am going to leave room for both “the head stuff” and “the heart stuff.” Some days might be more of one or another. I invite you to join me, as together we make space to listen, and be present, to sense what God might be up to.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, I am drawn to a carol that might not seem obvious for today. I say that, because it’s a beautiful sunny 50 degree afternoon here in Nebraska. That’s not exactly the recipe for a “bleak midwinter.” But still, I’m thinking about this carol because we sung it today in worship as our offertory response. It’s a beautiful text by Christina Georgina Rossetti, set to a beautiful melody by the famous Gustav Holst.
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.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Advent and Christmas were always joyous times of gatherings with tons of family and food. The weather was usually wet- drizzly or rainy, with gray skies. Some years we had clear blue skies, but very little if any time do I remember much in the way of snow. In fact, I remember singing a song growing up in jazz choir in high school called, “Just Another Wet Seattle Christmas.”
It’s probably not surprising then, that I really didn’t come to know the carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter” that much until my first winter living in Minnesota. There was over 100 inches of snow that winter. They had run out of places to pile it all up at seminary, so they were dumping it on the baseball field by our apartments. By February, there were snow piles nearly 20 feet high in places. Literally, there was “snow on snow, snow on snow…”
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.
As we sang this in worship this morning, I was playing it on piano. I was struck by how boldly the congregation was singing by the start of the second verse. “Heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain…” I don’t know why it caught my attention so much, but I really felt like the congregation was boldly singing, and perhaps deeply into the message of this carol today.
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.
What I have come to love about this carol over the years is the way it beautifully ties the Christmas story and stewardship together in the third verse. What can we give him? What do we bring to the newborn king?
On quieter winter evenings I often find myself singing the words of this carol, either safe and warm at home, or outside as the temperature plummets under the stars. As you journey through the season, I hope you find the time to find some peace, and ponder the words of this hymn, “What can I give him, poor as I am?… yet what I can I give him- give my heart.”
Credit/Reference: Christina Georgina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Gustav Holst, found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 294.