This is Iestyn’s sermon from the Sunday morning worship on Gift Sunday – 7th December.
So then, for this morning’s reflection we’re going to look at Christina Rossetti’s most famous hymn, the very much-loved ‘In the bleak midwinter’.
‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is a favourite carol for several reasons. One, without a doubt, is that the tunes to which it is sung most often are fantastic tunes. We all know Gustav Holst’s tune ‘Cranham’ which we sang this morning; equally popular to listen to is the choral setting by Harold Darke – difficult to sing as a congregation, but you’d all know it if you heard it, I’m sure.
Another reason, I would guess for its popularity is the sentiment of the final verse, a prayer of commitment if you like, and a particularly apt one for today’s Gift Sunday. I’ll come back to that prayer at the end, if I may, because I want to spend a little while looking at some of the ideas of the other verses, and look at some of the words in ways you may not have considered before. And lest you think that this is cop-out from preaching from Scripture (to use the old-fashioned expression), I’d like to assure you that what I want to do is, I think, linked to both what we have done this morning in Christian love, that is offer gifts as individuals and as a church, and linked to the readings we have heard.
So let’s start at the beginning (a very good place to start!): In the bleak midwinter. Those who remember back to the hymn book used here before Hymns Old and New may recall that ‘With One Voice’ didn’t have this carol included. Why? Well, With One Voice was an Australian publication, and what with their Summer-time Christmas, singing such Victorian sentimentality didn’t make much sense. In the Bleak Midwinter, with Santa arriving on a surf board? No not really. In his book, ‘Make Christmas Real’, Dad records that a church in New York celebrated Christmas in August one year to make the point that a winter-time Christmas is complete fiction in any case. We don’t know what time of year Jesus was born, and we know that 25 December was chosen because there had always been pagan mid-winter festivals. We know, full well, that snow falling, snow on snow, is complete nonsense, for whatever the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, it most certainly was not snowing! But since I’ve taken services here, and in other churches, I’ve always tried to point out passages in our Bibles which I think are not meant to be taken literally, but which serve as metaphors. And surely as poetry first and foremost, Rosetti’s word painting is not meant to be taken as her literal view of what it was like on that first Christmas morn.
We don’t need to complain that ‘In the bleak midwinter’ is historically or meteorologically inaccurate – that much is obvious. But as poetry, can we not think of it in the same way we do our advent light into darkness? Rossetti is doing no more than Isaiah in prophesy or John in his Gospel. In the bleakest of times, long ago, God came into the world.
The second verse – Our God heaven cannot hold him – has, like the first, been criticised for being rather unscriptural, or at least theologically dubious. I read on the internet – so it must be true – that Church of Scotland minister and broadcaster, Rev Ian Bradley had asked, in a Daily Telegraph article on the Carol ” “Is it right to say that heaven cannot hold God, nor the earth sustain, and what about heaven and earth fleeing away when he comes to reign?”
But I think this is again poetry, and poetry concerning questions about the nature of God in incarnation. Even in dedicating the Temple, King Solomon had asked whether the Temple could hold God, when even the highest heavens cannot. But for me, the point is a different one. Immanuel, God with us, means exactly that; incarnation isn’t about the size of heaven; it’s about the size of a little baby. Simple and yes, it’s the abysmally poor human conditions where you will find God incarnate.
I love the third verse and was delighted that it is in our hymn books. If you’ve thought ‘I’ve not sung that often’ you’d be right – it’s in Harold Darke’s choral arrangement (he leaves out verse 4 as printed with us) – but has not featured in many hymn books. I think it’s pretty clear why that is – our non-conformist forefathers (and yes, I do mean the men!!) would not have been comfortable singing about a breast full of milk in our chapels, oh no they would not. But what a beautiful verse this is, (and indeed the one which follows in similar vein).
Read it, listen to it, carefully:
Here is Jesus, God incarnate, worthy of worship by the creatures of heaven itself, day and night. Here is Jesus, before whom God’s messengers will bow. But God doesn’t need that worship. In fact, we have reverted to the very beginnings of creation; to the basics of the relationship between God and creation itself. A mother’s breast milk, a makeshift bed, and the worship of working animals; these things are enough for Jesus.
I suppose if I’m being honest, I do read some Victorian sentimentality in this; but there is also a refreshing element of honesty and realism. Angels over the stable doorway? Well, yes, perhaps. But that’s not the focal point, nor indeed what is important. Rather, it’s the human reality of the incarnation, joined with all nature, poetically and spiritually.
There’s a strong element of realism in the poetry of the fourth verse too, for all the mention, again, of the heavenly creatures and their bit part in the scene. Did Christina Rossetti mean it when she said that only his mother would have kissed the baby Jesus?
Well, I’m going to bow here to a literary expert, Dr Dinah Roe, biographer of the Rossetti family, literary critic and expert on pre-Raphelite literature.
Dinah Roe in an online analysis of the poem, suggest – perhaps even insists – that the ‘voice’ of the poet (by which she, and the therefore, I mean the narrator, not just the author) is female. And that in both the third and the fourth verses we get a very strong hint of the importance of the feminine to divine incarnation. It’s not just that the heavenly creatures are ‘impressive but still fall short of the mark’; it is also the complete lack of men within the picture. The focus is on the mother and specifically gifts which only the mother can give – feeding the child, and the mother’s kiss. We might go further and observe that given the nature of childbirth in the culture at the time, it may well be that the men were well and truly excluded from the scene.
We’re going to move onto the last verse now, much loved. But Dinah Roe’s analysis provides an interest point at which to start. Here, we must certainly be aware of some Victorian sensitivity, for if, as Dinah Roe suggests, the voice of the poet is what comes through loudest of all, then we have to at least acknowledge her concluding argument that the gift of the heart is a gift of female creativity. Roe says:
“The poem’s final line leads us to suspect that speaker and poet may be one and the same: ‘Yet what I can I give Him: give my Heart’. From another Victorian poet, this might come across as mawkish or overly simplistic, but from Rossetti, the offering is as authentic and sincere as the simple language in which it is delivered. This imaginative solution to the speaker’s dilemma can also be read as a celebration of female creativity. This poetic offering continues to appeal because we know Rossetti means it; poetry is Rossetti’s heart, and the most valuable gift she can think to present, both to her God and to her readers. -”
But I want us to take this verse further – much further in fact – and tie it in with both what we have done this morning, and with the reading of the story of the Widow’s mite, as it is often called. And to do this we must now unpick the obvious and respond to this great literature with passion. Because believe me, if you have sung this morning ‘give my heart’ with any conviction at all, then passion – or if you prefer in welsh, hwyl – is what you ought to have been experiencing.
I say ‘unpick the obvious’; what do I mean? Well, on the face of it, the meaning of this last verse is clear. We’re none of us shepherds, but I do think we’ve got quite a few wise men and women in our midst, and we all try to do our part. However, the essential criteria for Rossetti, and for those singing her poem is commitment from the heart, and I think we need to stop and consider what that means. It means, I think, not just doing our part, but giving as the widow gave; not just paying lip service, but heart; everything, total commitment.
I don’t know whether there are any huge fans of Bob Geldof in church this morning – I don’t think there are any of his friends or family here anyway – but I’m going to be quite a bit critical of the Band Aid movement for a moment, and of its leadership. There has been quite a lot written about the 30th anniversary recording of the Band Aid song. Does it continue to portray the continent of Africa with negative stereotyping? Does it actually make sense, literally or poetically? What about the fact that a bunch of predominantly white, well-off western pop singers (most aren’t known to us here this morning, let alone in Africa itself) are doing what they think is best without consulting that continent’s leaders, the aid agencies or even (shock horror) its musicians to see whether there might be a better approach. All these things are open to question.
But then I read that Sir Bob Geldof uses every means possible of paying as little tax as he can within the law; that he has a personal wealth of some £32million, and that this is a drop in the ocean for fellow Irishman Bono, whose net worth is some £600 million. And then I read in one damning article that when challenged about this, Sir Bob got agitated, and responded, with some anger (but then, he always sounds angry to me) ‘I give my time, isn’t that enough?’ Well, frankly, no it isn’t and I’m now the one who is getting agitated, angry.
The parable of the widow’s mite was told 2000 years ago; a story of those in the public eye, giving generously, giving publicly, making a splash, doing ‘the right thing’, fulfilling their obligations to an extent which both their God and yes, even the law, required. But Jesus says that’s not enough.
And 2000 years later, the modern day Pharisees still don’t get it.
In part of a discussion on the internet, after Children in Need, I commented that a friend’s child had given £10 of £50 birthday money to the charity. Others commented on how, time and again, it’s those who are not well off themselves who put their hands in their pockets. Now then, Sir Bob and Bono, what would 20% of your combined fortunes be? Somewhere approaching £125 million I guess. That’s approaching 100 times more than the Band Aid 30 record release has raised, in fact.
The Widow gives everything that she has: everything. Talk about giving your heart!
Please don’t misunderstand me this morning; I do not mean to attack charities, or charitable workers, I am not criticising those who respond to need and who out of love or just from the depths of their sympathetic emotion do what they can. The charitable work of which this morning is a part is crucial and is an expression of our love and commitment. But for real change to happen, the commitment at the very top of the pile needs to be of a different magnitude, of a different nature.
The poor widow can’t change the world with the two coins given; they’ll be gone in Temple expenses before the collecting box has been opened. But the example of commitment can change the world if it is picked up and adopted. Yes, it’s the widow’s example that we must follow this morning, not that of the important people in the public eye.
Christina Rossetti’s final verse is in counterbalance to the other verses of the poem. As we saw earlier, the trappings of royalty are ignored in favour of the humble stable, grand, showy worship, of angels and the heavenly host are rejected in favour of the simpler things – the love of a mother, and the attention of nature, represented by the farm animals. In this final verse, the humility is a personal one ‘Poor as I am’ but a humility which, finds expression in total commitment.
And then, to close, has anyone failed to spot the connection to our next hymn?
“Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus, aur y byd na’i berlau man…. Calon Lan yn llawn daioni….” I don’t want an easy life, gold and pearls, a pure heart – some would translate a ‘holy’ heart, a heart full of goodness.
From what I can tell, Calon Lan was written more or less the same time – probably a little later than ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’; we can look at its words another time perhaps, but for now, this is what Gift Sunday should be. Our presents and gifts today, our church offering and our charitable giving over the Christmas period are not of themselves; they are not the focus of our attention. They are, at least should be for us as friends of the coming Jesus, expressions of our heartfelt – yes, heartfelt – love and commitment.
May they be so, Amen.