“in the bleak midwinter”

the best words i think i heard all summer were “welcome to Vanderbilt Divinity School”! to be honest, i’m a month and a half into classes and it still doesn’t quite feel real. this is a bit of a dream come true. i’ve thought about going back to school for quite awhile and now that it’s actually happening, i’m still pinching myself to make sure i’m not dreaming!

my first paper came back and i received an a on it and i’m pretty excited about that. it helped that i liked the subject matter. i first learned the last stanza of this poem as 5 year old for our Christmas program at church; later i learned it as a hymn. for one of my classes we were to take a hymn and analyze the christology presented in it. here’s that paper:

The Christology found in Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”, originally written as a poem, is balanced between both the high and the low and tells the story of Christ’s birth.  Rossetti’s stanzas celebrate Christ’s transcendence as divine and vulnerability as human and ultimately pose to the reader a question of personal response. Verse one of the hymn sets the stage on earth.  Verses two and three move Christ from the spiritual realm to the earthly one.  Verse four reveals the response of humanity.  In this hymn, Rossetti shares a glimpse of her own understanding of Christ and her offering in response.
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) was a devout Anglican whose personal piety was reflected in her poetry.  Born in London to Italian parents, Rossetti became one of the most significant poets of the 19th century.  While devotional poetry was a part of her writings throughout her life, in her later years, devotional writing became more solely her focus.1  “In the Bleak Midwinter” was written as a Christmas poem for the magazine Scribner’s Monthly and for which she was paid ten pounds.2  The poem was set to music by English composer Gustav Holst and released as a hymn in 1906.3  The hymn has remained a beloved favorite.  In 2008, a new arrangement of the hymn by English composer Harold Darke was voted best carol by both English and American music directors surveyed by BBC’s Music Magazine.4  Rossetti managed in four short verses to paint a full portrait of the Christmas story.

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.

     Verse one is reminiscent of an English countryside winter but can be seen metaphorically as a bleak, cold world in need of a Savior.  The frozen earth and water coated in layers of snow and swept by a frosty, moaning wind could also represent a humankind whose heart is cold and without hope.  Both the frozen landscape depicted and the hardness of human hearts are in need of transformation from an external source.

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.

The intervention of God begins in verse two.  God transcends both the space and time constraints of heaven and earth.  The idea of heaven and earth fleeing “when he comes to reign” instills the idea that everything is about to change and life as it has been known will be transformed.  By choosing to name the God who arrives in a stable as “Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ”, Rossetti reveals Jesus identity as being both God and human.  Her use of “Christ” in particular alludes to the transformational and salvational nature of Jesus’ mission on earth.

Angels and arch-angels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only in her maiden bliss,
worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

The concept of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim being present at Christ’s arrival on earth reflects Luke’s biblical account.  The use of this part of the traditional Christmas story also foreshadows the appearance of the shepherds and wise men in verse four.  Rossetti, by setting the majesty of heavenly angels against the simplicity and humanity of a mother’s kiss, effectively juxtaposes Christ’s divinity with his human fragility.  The heavens worship his divinity with the presence of angels while the earth worships his humanity with a mother’s tender affection.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring him a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him: give my heart.

A personal response by the reader to the Christ Child is the foundation of the final stanza.  Rossetti skillfully weaves the responses of those present in the Christmas narrative to the response each may make when encountering Christ.  It is in the line, “yet what can I give him: give him my heart” that Rossetti reveals the gift she gave Christ.  By opening the verse with an inquiry and closing it with a definitive answer, Rossetti’s personal answer also indicates she expects her reader to respond as she does to Christ.  Rossetti revealed her heart’s devotion to Christ by her refusal of marriage proposals twice in her lifetime.  The offers of both gentleman were refused by Rossetti on the grounds that their religious beliefs did not complement her own faith.5 6  Through her inclusion of an element of personal response, Rossetti expects the reader to acknowledge both Christ’s divinity and humanity.

Rossetti’s Christ in the hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter” is presented as a multi-faceted being, both divine and human.  The work reveals a more complete Christology, rather than focusing merely on the high or low.  The hymn paints a world in need of renewal, weaves together the images of angels and a mother’s kiss, and demonstrates the response to Christ made by shepherds, Wise men, and the author.  It concludes by encouraging the reader to also make a personal response to the Christ.  Through this hymn, readers are encouraged to become part of the full story of Christ Divine and Christ Human.


3 Responses to ““in the bleak midwinter””

  1. 3 Beth Slevcove 1 October, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Nice! This is a favorite of mine. My favorite is Chrissie Hynde singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama.

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