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In the Bleak Midwinter: Sunday, January 1, 2023

A joint Anglican-Lutheran service of Christmas lessons and carols

“Greetings favoured one… Do not be afraid, Mary…” It’s one of the great scenes of the Advent-Christmas cycle: the Annunciation. “Do not be afraid,” we hear sometimes, is one of the most (if not the most) repeated exclamations in scripture. And Mary, there at the beginning of the story, will be there at the end, at the foot of the cross. (Think of how her “let it me unto me according to thy word” will be echoed by her son, “not my will, but thine be done.”)

One of the more famous paintings of the Annunciation is called “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (“behold the handmaiden of the Lord”), by one Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s known for the angel holding a lily (maybe prefiguring Easter), and the stem points toward Mary’s womb. And the Mary of the painting has long, straight, reddish hair, and what’s interesting about it is that Mary is in bed, in a long nightgown. She somehow comes across as more ‘real’ than what we normally see, where Gabriel shows up as she is praying, as if that was all she did. But no, here, she seems more like one of us.

The model for Mary in this painting is none other than the artist’s sister, Christina Georgina Rossetti. We sang her poem, that was put to music after her death, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” In 2008 an extensive poll of choir masters named it the “best carol” of all time. And Rossetti, I’m fond of informing people, was Anglican. (The Italian name would lead us to assume she was Roman Catholic, but her father was a political exile in England, and she was drawn by the high church Anglicanism of people like John Henry Newman, a generation before her.) I find myself drawn to Rossetti’s carol more and more every year. Maybe because it’s not one that’s been overdone. Maybe because it’s strangely melancholic, and we need that to balance the expectations of joy and exuberance. At St. Andrew’s on Christmas (and I think Christmases past) I quoted the last verse: “What can I give Him, Poor as I am?… Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.” That’s the call and the challenge of Christmas: to respond by giving Jesus our heart, as poor or inadequate as we might feel; that’s what God wants. “Be it unto me according to thy word…”

And there’s another verse, that for some reason doesn’t make it into all the hymn books: “Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; But only his mother in her maiden bliss, Worshipped the Beloved, with a kiss.” For all of the mystery and majesty of God and angel, we’re struck by that call for utterly human intimacy.

Now, in preparing for today, I thought it would be perfect to highlight this Anglican hymn, and then move to a Lutheran one. And my mind went to “Silent Night,” recalling it being originally in the German language. It turns out it was written by an Austrian; a Roman Catholic priest: Joseph Mohr. (And the English translation done by an American Anglican priest…) And so my parallelism is imperfect. But I did come across an article [The Tablet, 22/29 Dec 2018, pp. 14-15] about how (as it says) “[t]he Christian message of ‘Silent Night’ has survived all attempts to instrumentalize it for political propaganda, despite the best efforts of tyrannical German leaders.” How, in World War I, a new patriotic version was released that spoke of “France [lying] in dire distress… and England’s turn will come.”

Between the wars, socialists were skeptical of the religious message, and changed it to talk about “the poor [who] starve silently. When will the Saviour come?”

And in the ’30s: “Adolf Hitler is Germany’s fate. Lead us to greatness, glory, and fame. Give us Germans the power.” And Nazi propagandist Wilhelm Beilstein wrote “‘Peace on Earth’ can offer us nothing. We know that the law of our lives is not peace but combat and we know that the life and purpose of our effort and existence does not depend on the birth in Bethlehem but on the millions of births that German mothers take on, now and in the future.” It is one thing to ‘contextualize’ our faith, like Christina Rossetti re-casting the nativity story in a European winter scene. But it’s a whole other thing to twist and invert the Christian message. (And it probably happens more often than we think, to varying degrees.)

But here I can bring in someone from the Lutheran tradition; someone whom we might bring up too often. But who wrote not just deep and sometimes radical theology, but also beautiful devotional reflections about Christmas: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote:

Who among us will celebrate Christmas right?
Those who finally lay down all their power, honour, and prestige,
all their vanity, pride, and self-will
at the manger,
those who stand by the lowly and let God alone be exalted,
those who see in the child in the manger the glory of God
precisely in this lowliness.”*

Also,

As if to shame
the mightiest human efforts and achievements,
a child is placed at the center of history.

And again,

…our old, clever, experienced, self-assured world
must no doubt shake its head, or perhaps even laugh with contempt,
when it hears the cry of salvation from believing Christians,
‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.’

Both “Silent Night” and “In the Bleak Midwinter,” like lullabies, slow us down, and help us to reckon with the coldness and darkness of the world, as ways of attuning ourselves to God’s light. To give a genuine response to God coming, humbly in flesh. Which is altogether different from man vainly grasping at divinity. This Christmas season, lasting until Epiphany (or arguably until Candlemas on February 2nd) gives us time to enter into this; a time where (after the hustle and bustle of the shopping malls and commercial Christmas) all is calm; and earth (after this thaw) will [stand] still as iron, [and] water like a stone. Each of us standing by the manger to “let God alone be exalted” while we stand by the lowly, as Bonhoeffer said. And for us to say with Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Bonhoeffer quotes are from The Mystery of Holy Night (New York The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996).