• Mass Times

• Coming Events

• Sacraments

• Ministries

• Parish Staff

• Consultative Bodies

• Photo Gallery

• Virtual Tour

• History

• Contribute


• Bulletin

• In Your Midst

• Pastor's Desk


• Becoming Catholic

• Bookstore

• Faith Formation

• Funerals

• Immigrant Assistance

• Liturgy

• Mental Health

• Music

• Outreach/Advocacy

• Pastoral Care

• Weddings

• Young Adults

• Youth Ministry





In the Bleak Midwinter
Christina Rossetti
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 sufficed
The 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.

Through the musical settings of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, Rossetti’s poem has become a standard at Christmas, including Christmas here at St. James.
In this Poem of the Week series, we’ve read two other poems by Christina Rossetti—“Good Friday” and “Up-Hill.” Rossetti was one of the finest poets of the Victorian era, and when Tennyson died, her name was suggested for Poet Laureate—but England wasn’t ready for a female poet laureate at that time! Her poetry is richly varied, and her work includes long narrative poems like “Goblin Market,” lyrics on both secular and religious subjects, and even nursery rhymes. Rossetti could write splendidly about joy and love. But she could also write about darkness. As someone who struggled with depression all her life, she knew dark days, and in poetry she gave voice to that darkness and struggled to reconcile it with her faith.
“In the bleak midwinter” is full of vivid contrasts. In the first stanza, we get an evocative description of winter (clearly, an English winter, not a Palestinian one!). It is “the bleak midwinter,” and everything is frozen and hard – “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” This winter is deep and seems to have gone on forever—Rossetti masterfully creates that sense of winter’s duration in the line “snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,” which adds layer upon layer to this winter.
In the second stanza, God enters into this coldness and hardness. Rossetti describes both the first and second comings of Christ in the poem. Heaven and earth are too small to hold him, and both will “flee away” when he comes again; but at this moment in time, “in the bleak midwinter,” Christ enters in.
Rossetti evokes the simplicity, the poverty of the Christmas stable, again, through powerful contrasts. “Cherubim worship [him] night and day,” but here, Christ has only a “breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay.” Angels fall down in worship before him, but he accepts the homage of animals. There may have been archangels gathered around, but here in the stable, his mother’s kiss is enough.
Again and again, Rossetti contrasts the power and glory of heaven with the simplicity and poverty of earth. For me, Rossetti’s poem recalls the early Christian hymn in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus… though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). This self-emptying love of Christ is seen in the Incarnation, and reaches its fullest expression on the cross.
I think that passage from Philippians also sheds light on the last stanza of the poem: “What can I give him, poor as I am?” The poem began with such a barren image of the bleak midwinter – a frozen earth, “water like a stone.” And at the end, the speaker is similarly barren. She has no role to play here – she is neither a shepherd nor a wise man – and she has no gift to give: nothing except her heart—her love, her self.  I am reminded of St. Therese’s words of self-offering: “At the close of life's evening I shall appear before you with empty hands.”
Christmas is so associated with joy and hope and light and peace that it can seem like there is no room for sadness or darkness. But in this poem, Christina Rossetti makes room. Christ comes not just into the sunshine and happiness, but into the “bleak midwinter” of our world. In his self-emptying love, Christ gives meaning to our emptiness.



Return to St. James Cathedral Parish Website

804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303