Christina Rossetti’s gentle and beautiful poem, In the Bleak Midwinter, was written in 1872 for a Scribner’s Monthly appeal for Christmas poetry. It is famously set to a delicate composition by Harold Edwin Darke, and often included in services of lessons and carols, its pleading solos particularly well suited to traditional English choirs of men and boys. (You can easily find recordings on YouTube.) It is perhaps more familiarly known to us as set to the hymn tune Cranham (#112 in The Hymnal 1982), by Gustav Theodore Holst, and sung at Christmas services in many of our churches. Both settings capture the humble and confessional tone of Rossetti’s words, as spare and simple as the stable they describe. And each chooses a different four of the poem’s five original stanzas.
The hymn text used in our hymnal omits the one that seems most to set up the concluding stanza, the middle of the five. It reads:
Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
What is enough to give to God in response to the gift of love incarnate, the reality that divine love can indeed come to life in our lives? The gospels’ description of enough, as captured in Rossetti’s simple words, was a breastful of milk, a mangerful of hay, and the adoration of earthly creatures. The things of basic sustenance: food, shelter, and adoration. Things that we are able to do for the Christ who comes to us anew in friend, relative, and stranger: nourish, house, and love. The things by which each of God’s children comes to know she is treasured.
If you get to the end of In the Bleak Midwinter this Christmastide and are uncertain what it might mean to “give my heart,” perhaps it will help to remember what was enough. Simple, basic things. Things that in doing unto others we do to Christ.
Wishing you every blessing of Christmas,
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio