"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

In the bleak midwinter, give my heart


2018.12 Choir

Christmas carols crowd into Advent, pushing aside the poignancy of waiting in favour of jollity.  One of my favourite carols never makes it into the aural wallpaper of our public spaces, I think because it does not paper over the bleakness of waiting with tinsel, but enters into the mystery of the Christ Child’s vulnerability.  When I hear its opening strains on the organ I am transported into a candle-lit church.

There are two achingly beautiful settings of Christina Rossetti’s poem: the first, by Gustav Holst[1],  melts snow on snow as it warms me with the timeless resonance of congregational singing.  My favourite, by Harold Darke[2],  glows with richly textured choral colouring.  It stills my heart and catches my breath in the last line with a plaintive melodic variation so that I can enter the nativity with wonder.

Once I have entered the stable it is the words of the third verse that I ponder longest: ‘Enough for him, whom cherubim, worship night and day, a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay’.  Seeing the Lord as a contented infant fixes my eyes on ‘the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death’[3]  He is waiting for me to become attentive to His incarnation in each member of His body.

In the bleak midwinter[4]

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,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim 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.
2018.12 Rossetti Nativity

The Seed of David, altarpiece for Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina’s brother

Am I really able to see the Lord’s delight in emptying himself, His contentment in being nourished and embraced by the Virgin Mary?  Am I able to see the Lord in my loved ones who, because of mental disability, share the frailty of the infant Christ?  St John Paul II, in his “Message [to] … the International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person”, gives us images that make me hold my breath with the same wonder as Rossetti’s carol.  He writes,


“There is no doubt that in revealing the fundamental frailty of the human condition, the disabled person becomes an expression of the tragedy of pain. …the difficulties of the disabled are often perceived… as burdens to be removed or resolved as quickly as possible.  Disabled people are, instead, living icons of the crucified Son.  They reveal the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death.”[5]


2018.12 JP II young

‘Disabled people are … living icons of the crucified Son’ makes me hold my breath.  Can I slow down and engage with this living icon the way I can slow down and meditate on the words of a favourite carol or a beautiful Christmas card?  St John Paul II continues


‘By making himself human and being born in the poverty of a stable, the Son of God proclaimed in himself the blessedness of the afflicted… if we know how to travel with abandoned trust the exhausting, uphill road of human suffering, the joy of the Living Christ which surpasses every desire and every expectation will blossom for us and for our brothers and sisters.’[6]


It is the joy of entering the stable, seeing the poignant beauty of Christ in the frail, and giving my heart in response that I long for this Christmas.

2018.12 JPII old

St John Paul II, who lived with abandoned trust, pray for us!

Peggy Gibson

[1] Gustav Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘  available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BNKmVmfdAo, accessed December 15, 2018

[2] Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3FwwnLvELw, accessed December 15 2018

[3] Message of John Paul II on the occasion of the International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled, January 2004, paragraph 6, available from  http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2004/january/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20040108_handicap-mentale.html; accessed December 15, 2018

[4] Poetry foundation, Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter, available from  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53216/in-the-bleak-midwinter; accessed December 15, 2108

[5] Message of John Paul II, paragraph 6, available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2004/january/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20040108_handicap-mentale.html ; accessed December 15, 2018

[6] Ibid, Paragraph 7

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