Christmas Songbook Day 8: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

The Gettys make every song better.

This track is a bit of a Christmas deep cut these days. Most popular “holiday music” is focused on the traditions and memory-making and the joy of family and friends, and even our Christmas hymns are carols are more celebratory than contemplative. Today’s selection goes in the opposite direction: full of Nativity imagery, this song quietly focuses on the simplicity and humility of the Incarnation. It sounds most like “Silent Night”–a lullaby hummed over a slumbering newborn.

The song began life as a poem by Christina Rosetti, published in 1872, and was set to music about 30 years later by Gustav Holst (the composer most famous for The Planets). Even if most of the 5 verses are unfamiliar to you, you probably know the last one: “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.

The second verse is my favorite, however, because it not only combines the transcendence and immanence of God, demonstrated in the Incarnation, but it also looks ahead from the first coming of Jesus to the second: “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.” A beautiful tribute to the Eternal Son, who didn’t consider equality with the Father a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself of glory to take on the humble form of a servant.

I think I need to work this song into my musical rotation more often. Good, good stuff here.

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Here’s one more version of it, for a slightly different flavor. The Getty’s are great, but I also dig this arrangement (though, interestingly, he changes “Almighty” to “Incarnate” in verse 2):

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