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In the Bleak Midwinter

Like the Renaissance plays that we sometimes stage with modern backdrops, the author has helped us to imagine the Christ-child’s birth as it might have happened in Western Europe…

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.

By far one of my favorite carols, it was written by the English poet Christina Rossetti in the nineteenth-century. Finally set to music at the beginning of the twentieth-century, it has been a mainstay in Lessons and Carols services ever since.

Rossetti has taken the Christmas story and placed it in her own setting. Like the Renaissance plays that we sometimes stage with modern backdrops, the author has helped us to imagine the Christ-child’s birth as it might have happened in Western Europe. It is a way of connecting with the story that illumines and expands our understanding of it.

The hymn takes us through the narrative, from Christ’s choice to come to earth through his miraculous birth. It marks the wonder of the witnesses and the gentle love of his mother. And then it turns to us – in one of the best verses in all of Christmas hymnary.

The question we often wonder: how are we to enter into this story? Well, here is her answer: 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.

Dancing Day

It is still happening all around us. It appears when we least expect it…

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance to see the legend of my play, to call my true love to my dance; sing, O my love, O my love, my love, my love – this have I done for my true love.

This traditional English carol very likely has Medieval origins, though the version we use now dates back to the nineteenth-century. It is one of the longer Christmas carols and follows the course of the Apostles’ Creed’s section about Jesus. Beginning with his miraculous birth, each verse narrates part of the wonder that was Christ’s life, death and resurrection – all ending with the same chorus.

Hearing this song as a child, I did not understand it, though I loved it. I thought perhaps the singer was speaking to their “true love” in the popular culture sense. It was not until much later that I learned that the speaker in the song is Christ himself and Christ is speaking to his true love – the church.

So yes, it is a love song. Yes, we, the body of Christ, are the object of affection. However, the dance into which we are invited is so much more than a wedding day jig.

We are invited into Christ’s dance, which is the salvation story. It is still happening all around us. It appears when we least expect it. So the question is this: will you be a wall flower or join the dance?

Then was I born of a virgin pure, of her I took fleshly substance. Thus was I knit to man’s nature to call my true love to my dance. Sing, O my love, O my love, my love, my love – this have I done for my true love.

Good Christian Friends

…the Christ-child is still born today

Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice; give ye heed to what we say: Jesus Christ was born today. Ox and ass before him bow and he is in the manger now. Christ is born today! Christ is born today!

This beloved carol dates back to medieval times, though it’s current popular setting is less than two hundred years old. It begins by painting a picture of the Christmas story and then dives deep into the full meaning of Christ’s birth for the creation. In other words, how Christ’s coming fulfills the ancient promises of salvation.

Though we only sing this song during the season of Christmastide, it might be worth considering that the Christ-child is still born today. The child is born in our hearts every day when we live as Jesus taught us – when we show love in the face of hate, lift up the broken hearted, and welcome even the outcast in our midst.

Why can we do this? Because Christ was born to save and that salvation takes root here and now. So rejoice, for Christ was born for this.

Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice; now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save! Calls you one and calls you all to gain the everlasting hall. Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!

I Saw Three Ships

Christmas morning does bring great joy in earth and in heaven…

I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day, on Christmas day. I saw three ships comes sailing in on Christmas day in the morning.

The exact meaning behind this traditional, jaunty carol is debated.

We know that ships are a symbol for the church – though the reference to the ships holding a child and lady, and sailing to Bethlehem seem to knock that suggestion down. We know that ships are sometimes used as a symbol for camels, such as the ones that carried the Magi to Bethlehem. But again, considering the ships were holding the Christ-child and his mother, this still seems out.

So what do we make of this hymn?

Perhaps the secret lies in the ship as a symbol of God’s safe passage. Yes, that usually comes in the form of the church, but in this case, as there are three ships, perhaps it is God’s trinitarian form that is guarding and delivering the child and his mother safely in Bethlehem.

However you want to view the ships, at the end of the day, the key thing to remember about this carol is that Christmas morning does bring great joy in earth and in heaven, for in the Christ-child’s birth we see the salvation story continuing to be fulfilled. And that is good news for us all.

Then let us all rejoice and sing on Christmas day, on Christmas day. And all the bells on earth shall ring on Christmas day in the morning.

There Is No Rose

Let us not forget the great miracle that is new life in this world…

There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bear Jesu; Alleluia.

For in this rose contained was heaven and earth in little space; Res miranda.

Among the traditional celebrations of Lessons and Carols always comes the inclusion of songs about Mary, like this traditional carol.

In many ways, the Protestant Reformation threw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to Mary. Like many parents who take their children to see their families, the mother (parents) often get overlooked in all the excitement surrounding the kids. But if it were not for Mary’s willingness to carry the child, we would not have the Christmas story.

Let us not forget the great miracle that is new life in this world. Though the Christ-child was particularly special, every child is full of the infinite possibilities of God. And we have the unique blessing of getting to participate in God’s creation through the carrying, birth, and raising of children. We are an essential part of the story, too.

So let us give thanks for the re-creation that occurs through every one of us. And let us give thanks for Mary through whom we have received infinite blessings in her perfect, little child.

Leave we all this worldly mirth, and follow we this joyful birth. Transeamus.

Riu, Riu, Chiu

Christ is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, who is the light that no darkness can overcome…

Riu, riu, chiu, the Kingfisher, God has kept the wolf from our Lamb.

This carol is traditionally sung in it’s original language of Spanish. Written in the sixteenth century, it is a raucous tune that gives thanks for the miracle of the incarnation and the virgin birth. The translation above is but one of several English translations available.

I sang this hymn during my own Lessons & Carols celebrations at my school. Though I never understood what I was saying, the carol’s stirring melody always drew me further into the story we were sharing.

In one of it’s final verses, the lyrics speak of how the child came to give life to the dead and is the light of day of whom John spoke. Though we do not consider it an infancy narrative (because there is no baby), the beginning of the gospel of John does certainly recount one of the beginnings of Christ. Christ is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, who is the light that no darkness can overcome.

It is for that light that we joyfully sing of all the miracles surrounding the Christ-child’s arrival. So let us join in the joyful shouts of riu, riu, chiu.

Sing We Now of Christmas

But we must remember that Christ was not the king that was expected, and definitely not the king that many wanted. He brought a different model to the role…

Sing we now Christmas, Noel, sing we here! Hear our grateful praises to the babe so dear. Sing we Noel, the King is born, Noel! Sing we now of Christmas, sing we now Noel.

Based upon the classic french carol, Noel Nouvelet, this popular translation has been used by choirs around the English-speaking world. Noel quite literally means “Christmas” (though in certain ways it sounds much prettier). And the carol retells the Christmas story as the melody stirs the soul.

It speaks repeatedly of the King. But we must remember that Christ was not the king that was expected, and definitely not the king that many wanted. He brought a different model to the role – one based on the ancient concept of kingship from the Hebrew scriptures. It is based upon God’s own principles of rule: lifting up the lowly, safeguarding the weak, caring for all.

Christ’s Kingship, recognized at his birth and made visible in his crucifixion and resurrection, calls us to a different model of being in this world. Yes, we who follow Christ are blessed, but not so that we may sit in comfort and splendor. No, we are called to serve – just as Christ did. May we remember our calling as Christmas continues to draw near.