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The secret behind the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 12/26/21

Good poetic writing shows us that every person and object is a reflection of God's glory.

Recently I talked to my friend Adam Wright on his radio show Roadmap to Heavenabout my favorite Christmas hymn. When he first called and asked if I had a hymn in mind to talk about, I didn’t need time to think. I immediately had one – In the Bleak Mid-Winter.

Before it was put to music by Gustav Holst in 1906, the lyrics were a poem by Christina Rossetti. She’s connected with the Pre-Raphaelite art movement in the 19th century, a group of artists who rejected the idea that the sophisticated, mannered art of Raphael was the only kind of art that had value. Their goal was to return to an artistic vision that pre-dated Raphael and the artificial compositions connected with the Renaissance era. Rossetti wanted to make art inspired by nature. She believed a close examination of how each individual created thing is beautiful.

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” isn’t high-flown theology. It’s about simple, specific things – snow, wind, water, hay. It’s a type of poetic writing that makes the art extremely powerful by placing us imaginatively into the scene. Good poetry, as a general rule, rejects abstraction and focuses on the concrete. A poem is an expression of how each and every person and object is a reflection of God’s glory. Through the language, a connection is made between everyday life and God’s divine life.

That’s why a good poem startles. It makes us sit up and take notice even if we don’t quite understand why it has affected us so deeply. It’s like the poet is holding open a door to Heaven and for a brief moment you step through it to experience a vision of a vast new horizon. Think of it like the shepherds who were startled awake to a sky lit up with angels shouting a gloria. That’s a poetic moment.

What I find so beautiful about “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” is the quality of the lyrics, but also how the restraint of the words is echoed in the restraint of the music. It’s a chaste, serious form of beauty, not overly emotional and yet, in being so finely controlled, our emotion when hearing and singing it is brought to a fullness of perfection.

Beneath a deceptively innocent surface, the hymn reveals the heart of Christmas, which is the miracle by which God’s vast strength becomes small and humble. God is now with us. With the events of Christmas Day, we begin our pilgrimage towards the purpose of our creation. Everything about us is lifted up.

As a priest, I offer multiple Masses every Christmas and I struggle with feeling worthy to participate in such a great and mysterious miracle. I have no worthy gift to make to God in return for what He’s given. Maybe you feel the same from your perspective. Whenever I sing “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” though, I come back to one particular image:

Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

In this scene, the kiss of a mother means everything. A simple act of love. As Rossetti writes, all of us can give God the gift of our hearts.

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