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, melts snow on snow as it warms me with the timeless resonance of congregational singing. My favourite, by Harold Darke, 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’ He is waiting for me to become attentive to His incarnation in each member of His body.
In the bleak midwinter
“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.”
‘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.’
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.
St John Paul II, who lived with abandoned trust, pray for us!
 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
 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
 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
 Poetry foundation, Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter, available from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53216/in-the-bleak-midwinter; accessed December 15, 2108
 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
 Ibid, Paragraph 7