Posted: 24 December 2013

Advent: Looking at 'In the bleak midwinter'

In this fourth week of Advent, we are focusing on the theme 'Christ present' and Isaiah 7.10-16.

Today, Janet Morley – who also wrote about light in the first week of Advent – reflects on this week’s theme.

Heaven cannot hold him

Christina Rossetti’s famous poem ‘In the bleak midwinter’ has become a carol that is always at the centre of our Christmas services, and is many people’s absolute favourite.

Here is the poem's second stanza:

  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.

I think it’s a favourite partly because, while it is direct and poignant and touches our hearts, there is not an ounce of sentimentality or any of the fake ‘Victorian Christmas’ paraphernalia we are familiar with from some Christmas cards. We are not asked to focus on cute robins or merry sleigh bells here.

The wild, risk-taking generosity of God and the reality of winter’s grip

The poem speaks of 'snow on snow' and earth that is 'hard as iron'. These illustrate the reality of winter’s grip in a world where babies are vulnerable and where young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant don’t always have a safe place in which to give birth. Yet the mystery is that it is precisely into this hard world that God comes to share our vulnerable human life.

'Heaven cannot hold him', Rossetti writes, as if the normal boundaries of reality have been broken by the action of God. The heavens (the place of God’s reign) cannot hang onto the wild, risk-taking generosity of God, who has literally fallen to earth to be with his beloved people. The creator of all finds that 'a stable place sufficed' for the birthplace of the Christ-child.

The next verse of the poem repeats that the humble contents of the stable – the bed of hay, the curiosity of the animals, the comfort of Mary’s breast – were all 'enough' for the God of earth and heaven.

Enough for him – but what about us?

And God’s humble sense of what is ‘enough’ implicitly judges what we feel is or isn’t enough for ourselves. We are living in a time when the poorest in our society find that margins are being sliced to the bone, while many of the richest are protecting their expenses, bonuses and tax shelters.

What do we find to be 'enough'?

Christmas Eve reflection

Take some time today to reflect on the mystery of Christ’s coming. Find a moment among the preparations to feel its challenge and strangeness, among the practical tasks of hospitality, or travel to see family, or wrapping up gifts, or waiting up to go to church for a midnight service. Listen to some carol singing and really take in the words. Or use this deceptively simple poem as your own prayer.

Give your heart

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.

More by Janet Morley

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