Thursday, 25 December 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

Patrick Comerford

25 December 2008, Christmas Day

Isaiah 62: 6-12; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: 8 - 20.

May I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I have to confess to being a life-long fan of Leonard Cohen. His concert in Dublin in June was the cultural highlight of the year for me. And I don’t care who wins the X Factor or tops the charts with the Christmas No 1 – Leonard Cohen’s version of Hallelujah is still my favourite.

But when it comes to Christmas carols, then one of my favourite carols is also a chart topper because it was recently voted the best carol ever. It is Christina Rossetti’s poem, In the Bleak Midwinter. In a BBC poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts, it was chosen as the best-ever Christmas carol.

It came out top in the BBC Music Magazine poll last month, above well-known songs and carols such as Silent Night, Ding Dong Merrily on High and Once in Royal David’s City.

The poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was part of the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement and the pre-Raphaelite movement; she was a leading advocate of women’s rights, a campaigner against slavery and war, and a prominent member of the Anglo-Catholic movement. She wrote In the Bleak Midwinter in 1872 in answer to a request from a magazine. But, like a lot of writers, she must have been frustrated that it took so long to have her poem published.

Although she wrote it in 1872, In the Bleak Midwinter was not published until 1904, ten years after she died. Gustav Holst (1874-1934) then set it to music, and it was first published as a Christmas carol just over a century ago, in The English Hymnal (1906), edited by Percy Dearmer and Holst’s friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

So it took over 30 years, more than a generation, before this poem was first sung as a Christmas carol. But ever since then, it has been a firm Christmas favourite. Another setting for the carol, by Harold Darke (1888-1976), with his beautiful and delicate organ accompaniment, has been popular since the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, began using it in the radio broadcasts of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

It has been recorded by the King’s Singers, Julie Andrews, the Moody Blues, the Pet Shop Boys, James Taylor, Alison Crowe, Moya Brennan, Celtic Woman, Sarah McLachlan, Sarah Brightman and Loreena McKennitt. And yet, I find this popularity surprising. Because this is no popular, cosy, comfortable Christmas carol. The images are harsh, and bleak, and demanding.

So often I hear it said that people only come to church at Christmas to be comforted and consoled, not to be challenged, that what they want is the carols and the crib, the tinsel and the tree, Santa and the snowman, but that we don’t want the challenge of Christmas.

Yet Christmas is a truly challenging story: it is the story of a single mother, of a homeless family that finds no welcome, of farm labourers left to the mercy of the wolves and the thieves of the night, of a capricious ruler who stoops to using any violence that secures his throne, and of the exile and search for asylum of an unwanted family in a foreign country.

But then, Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story. Christmas is irrelevant unless we bear in mind the whole purpose of Christmas: it is God’s identification with us in the flesh, in the here-and-now; with our sufferings and hardships as we live them out; his identification with us that becomes complete on the Cross on Good Friday; his identification with us that triumphs over all that is bleak and miserable with the Resurrection on Easter morning.

And this poem and carol by Christina Rossetti, which gets to the heart of the Christmas message, seems more relevant to me in this bleak mid-winter than it has seemed for many years.

For many of us know that this Christmas is in the middle of a very bleak mid-winter. It is a bleak Christmas for too many this year. It’s not just that there have been fewer office parties, that in business there have been fewer Christmas presents to and from clients, that there have been fewer cards and complimentaries.

It is much more worrying than that. How many are now worried that they may have no job, no income, perhaps even no home when we move on into the New Year?

And quite clearly, nobody is taking responsibility for this predicament. We can blame who we want to: the government, the builders, the banks, the speculators. But when we move on from the blame game, who is going to take responsibility?

It seems that these days, when something wrong is uncovered, a contributory factor in our present economic crisis is unfolded or is revealed, those who should bear responsibility simply walk away. They resign, and at their resignation they take a nice comfortable package. But accepting true responsibility never means walking away from a problem … accepting responsibility means admitting that something is wrong, and then trying to do something about it.

How often do we hear people say that they did nothing wrong, that what they did may have been “inappropriate” but it was legal and they didn’t break any rules?

“I accepted a large, anonymous donation and used it for my personal gain. But it wasn’t against the rules at the time, and I didn’t break any law. I’m resigning and I’ll leave it to other politicians to sort things out.”


“I borrowed large sums from my own bank as I watched the value of my shareholders’ stock spiral in decline, as depositors saw their savings put at unacceptable risk, as taxpayers were called on to prop up the system while their pensions, their healthcare and their children’s education were put at risk. I’m resigning, and the taxpayers and the voters, Sean and Sile Citizen, can bear the cost of my folly.”

We’ve blurred the lines that distinguish between right and wrong, between what’s permitted and what should never happen. We no longer ask whether something is ethical. We simply want to know whether it was illegal or not, whether any rules that applied at the time were broken.

And we no longer link responsibility to the moral imperative to own up and to act responsibly, to act without self-interest for the general and common good, even when it puts my own potential for selfish gains at risk.

At a time when the world as we once knew it – socially, politically, economically, ethically and morally – appears to be collapsing all around us, the Christmas story appears to be the one comfort that many people are falling back on.

Perhaps this is because this is precisely what is at the heart of the Christmas story. God sees that the world is in a truly bleak midwinter. According to Christina Rossetti, it was a bleak midwinter, when

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

when God took responsibility for this cold-hearted world.

God didn’t walk away from this cold-hearted, stone-hearted world.

God didn’t say there’s nothing in the rulebook that requires me to do something about it.

God didn’t decide to wipe his hands of the dust and dirt of this world.

God didn’t say there is nothing ethically compelling that demands that I should take action.

At Christmas, God does the very opposite of walking away.

At Christmas, God does the very opposite of putting the blame on others.

At Christmas, God does the very opposite of refusing to identify with the suffering, the marginalised, the victims and the losers.

At Christmas, God throws all the rules aside, defies all expectations, behaves in a way that is totally selfless and unselfish.

He seeks no rewards, no benefits, no pay-offs, no dividends.

He just comes in search of humanity, in all dejection and rejection.

He just seeks you and me.

He doesn’t come as a wealth-seeking banker, a power-driven politician, a get-rich-quick merchant.

He just identifies with us in our human flesh, in our nakedness, as we are, without any wealth or fashion to hide our weak, frail and naked but beautiful humanity.

He offers us his love. God loves you.

And all he asks in return is our love, your love and my love:

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.

Poor or wise, strong or weak, powerful or powerless, all he asks of us in return, all he asks of you and me, is your heart, my heart.

To an apparently heart-less world, that may be an awesome price. But that’s what the world and our society, Irish society, every society, needs most at this bleak, mid-winter time: our love, and the love of God, which is offered freely at Christmas-time.

Have a Happy Christmas. Now and tomorrow, every tomorrow, may you enjoy and reflect the love of the incarnate Christ. Hallelujah!

And so, may all praise honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin, on Christmas Day 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

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 incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down 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.

Listen to a free recording of Darke’s In the bleak midwinter from Coro Nostro, a mixed chamber choir based in Leicester.

Leonard Cohen’s Halleluljah is at: