“In the Bleak Midwinter”, originally written as a poem by Christina Rossetti and later set to music composed by Gustav Holst, is one of my favorite winter hymns. Even though it was originally titled “A Christmas Carol”, and it’s in the Christmas section of the hymnal, and we sing it during Advent and Christmas, and it talks about the newborn Jesus and His mother… it just doesn’t scream CHRISTMAS to me. I don’t know why. Here, take a listen to one of my favorite versions by James Taylor.
To me, the picture painted in this hymn is the barren, stark, grey landscape of well, midwinter. Here in Minnesota, we should be shivering with arctic air and our grounds covered in a deep blanket of snow. Yet, this year has been one of the mildest on record with little to no snow cover around the state. Even Christmas and New Year’s felt unrecognizable when we are so used to ones of white; these special holidays kind of felt like just more cold days in a string of many.
The trees are dead, the grass is dead, and the flowers are obviously dead. Everything around me is cold and brown, without the usual glittering icy beauty of our typical winters. Events that normally bring joy and fun to our cold winter season have been canceled; ice castles and sled dog races, ice fishing competitions and cross-country skiing, ice skating and sledding with friends — all put on hold.
My local family and friends fall into one of two categories: either they are thrilled with the milder-than-normal temperatures and lack of snow, or they’re bemoaning both.
Guess which camp I’m in.
I’ve always said, “If it’s going to be cold, it may as well be beautiful and snowy!” We still have to deal with finding coats and packing the kids’ daily snow bags for school but without the payoff of a snow fort, snow angel, or even snowball fight. (For those of you outside the chilly midwest, a snow bag includes all the gear one may need for wintertime outdoor recess: boots, gloves, hats, scarves, and snow pants. And yes, the kids go outside for recess unless it’s below zero.) Thus far this year we’ve been relegated to a brown, barren landscape. To me, a snow-covered landscape is anything but bleak. Snow on snow is the dream, my ideal for an already-cold winter. To me, the uncovered, dead, earth is where bleakness lies on display.
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.
There are other kinds of bleak, deeper kinds beyond frozen ground. When I see these lyrics, I find myself wondering about the bleak state of the world when Jesus entered it, walked it, lived it. We know He experienced and witnessed depravity and hardship, poverty and injustices, smarmy streetcorner preachers and judgy neighbors. Surely the world was bleak, sullied from the Garden it once was.
We read in Scripture that with a bite and a blind eye, darkness fell. Eden was lost forever and the world became bleak. Sometimes when I stumble on a horrifying news story, hear of another school shooting, see the division carved by an exhausting political landscape, or think about the wars happening right now across the globe, I am overcome in a way that feels similar to the realization of Eden’s fall. I want to crawl into bed and hide under the blankets, blocking it all out.
But even then I couldn’t block it out of my heart, and I don’t think Jesus was ever able to either.
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.
No, God sent His Son to live in it. To muck around with blue-collar workers, to live with family and the drama that accompanies it, to walk a mile in our very own shoes until His unjust death. To dirty His feet and suffer alongside the marginalized. To be forced to find beauty in a dusty, dry, barren, and bleak world that isn’t Home.
Heaven couldn’t contain Him indeed.
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.
And so many did give Jesus their hearts, lambs, and gifts. He was shown love by many in His life; frosty and sharp as the world could be, there was light. Jesus had dear friends, family who adored Him, and people who wanted to know Him more deeply. Even at the end, His people showed up and watched, prayed, stayed through the bleakest hour.
It’s love that pushes us through when the bleakness of midwinter seasons threatens to swallow us whole.
If we look closely, we can see His beautiful face around every snow-free corner, each wintering and bare tree, and even in the brown blades of grass covering our bleak midwinter land.
May we give Him our hearts. May He come and reign.