This is a beautiful hymn.
The tune is just lovely, and I have heard dozens of lush arrangements. And sure, unless you grew up with this hymnal, this is not the version you know. But the good news is that according to Hymnary, pretty much every denomination has changed the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem, so we’ve got that going for us.
Here’s her original:
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.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 sufficedThe Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,The ox and ass and camel which adore.Angels and archangels may have gathered there,Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.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.
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.
Christ a homeless stranger, so the gospels say,
cradled in a manger and a bed of hay;
in the bleak midwinter, stable-place sufficed
Mary and her baby, Jesus Christ.
Once more child and mother weave their magic spell,
touching hearts with wonder words can never tell;
in the bleak midwinter, in this world of pain,
where our hearts are open love is born again.
And here’s a question: what happens if every now and then we DO give our hearts to that which we know to be Divine? Why are we so adamant about keeping control, which limits God and limits Love?
In my ordination, I was certain to include a poem by Edward Hays that includes these words:
I tremble at the thought
of you consuming those things that I love
and even my prized image of who I am.
Yet, I also want to know you more fully;
help me to embrace the awesome implications
of my inviting you to enter my life.
What happens when we actually open ourselves to love, giving our hearts to someone or something that would teach us compassion, expansiveness, righteousness, forgiveness? I think Unitarian Universalists sometimes sell that which some call the Spirit of Life really short, and we don’t do anything to shift our thinking.
Rossetti’s poem asks us to not sell ourselves short – and not to sell the expansive, healing Love that Jesus’ birth signifies short either. Love, healing, forgiveness, creativity, energy, curiosity, generosity, compassion – it’s all there if we let go of our prized images of who we are.
Whether you believe in the Divinity of Christ or just appreciate the teachings that remain, we are being asked to open ourselves up to those gifts. You don’t even have to open up specifically to Jesus, or God, but just be open to all that is.
What can we give in return? Our hearts.
As Hays concludes in his poem,
Enlarge my half-hearted love
with the ageless truth
that if I seek your kingdom first,
seek to be fully possessed by you,
everything I need shall be given me,
and happiness beyond my wildest dreams
shall be mine.