Thursday, December 18, 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

I've been reading Christina Rosetti's poetry recently. Rosetti was a nineteenth-century English poet (1830-1894). She was a High-Church Anglican, and her religious sensibilities were often very consonant with Roman Catholic belief and practices, although she broke off an engagement with a man who became a Catholic because of his decision.

Her best known poem is probably "A Christmas Carol," which was put to music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and is known as "In the Bleak Midwinter." I had never noticed this carol until this year. The music especially is so moving. Here is the poem:

A Christmas Carol

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.

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.

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.

This is a good hymn for Advent, too, because it focuses not only the coming celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also on his second coming ("Heaven and earth shall flee away/When He comes to reign"). My favorite stanza is the one about the angels and Mary ("Angels and archangels"). I love the contrast between the adoration of the heavenly host of angels--the worship of the King by his subjects--and the silent, hidden love of a mother for her child. This two-fold nature is what we are called to: we are to worship the Lord who is transcendent and infinite, but we are also called to love him in a close personal relationship, and we can do that because he took on an intimate, finite, human nature, in addition to his divine nature. And it is this bodily worship through the kiss that brings us back to the Incarnational and Eucharistic nature of this great feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Through Eucharistic adoration, we are able today to do what the Magi and the shepherds did so long ago. And in the reception of the Eucharist, we are able today to do what his mother did so long ago.

There are many beautiful versions of this carol, but here is one of my favorites, by Corinne May.

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