Some folks have the self-control to withhold listening to Christmas music until December. Pop culture dictates an early diet starting the day after Halloween. As a music pastor, Christmas music listening and service planning starts in September. Besides the advantage of avoiding pop Christmas music for at least the first two months, what usually keeps me upbeat (and sane) in this season is the opportunity to discover little or lesser known Christmas carols from years past. This Christmas season, amidst the many familiars and favorites, our church will be "introduced" to one such traditional carol.

In the Bleak Midwinter was written in the late 19th century by English poet Christina Rossetti. After her death, composer Gustav Holst set the verses to music and the poem became a carol, first published in the 1906 English Hymnal. Although less familiar to American ears, this tune has been a favorite in the UK for decades, even being voted the 'Best Christmas Carol' by a 2008 BBC Music magazine poll of the world's leading choirmasters and choral experts (Silent Night came in at #25 on the list, believe it or not).

In the Bleak Midwinter has all the hallmarks of a classic Christmas carol. In the best poetic fashion, the opening verse sets a scene of the dire spiritual state of the world into which the Savior was born. What follows is a reflection on the incarnation, of the divine becoming human, drawing on scriptural references such as Solomon's dedication of the first Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27)

...and the future judgment of the world:

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. (Revelation 20:11)

The song continues to play on the contrasts of the nativity scene, of the heavenly hosts whose worship was witnessed by the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14), but also the blessed and intimate worship offered by Mary to her newborn baby. It's a brilliant reminder of what Christ's first coming to the earth represents - a holy God, unapproachable in His righteousness, and yet near to us in the likeness of human flesh.

Most appropriately, the carol concludes with a moment of self-reflection and a question. What do we have to offer the Christ-child, empty and unworthy as we are? How can our God be pleased with our worship? It's a question posed and answered throughout the scriptures, and Rossetti provides that beautiful and simple answer, "What can I give Him? -Give my heart."

The one who is worthy of our worship has also provided the means of that worship:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

The Word made flesh dwelt among us to show us the way, to die our death on our behalf, to remove our iniquity and to bring us new life. If any and all of these are forgotten at Christmas, we've lost site of Emmanuel and His glorious story - that God has drawn close to us and drawn us back to Himself. In the Bleak Midwinter reminds us that in the Christmas story, the promise of reconciliation has been kept. May our continued prayer in this season be that our thawed hearts, once cold and hard towards our Maker, remain warmed in worship to Jesus the Savior, our God and our Friend.

In the bleak mid-winter
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 mid-winter
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 mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air -
But only His mother
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.