I am particularly drawn to this song right now because of the occasions of sorrow and injustice that keep swirling around us. It's so easy to turn on the news and feel nothing but despair. "In the bleak midwinter..." That's us, that's now.
And so we wait for our Savior to come. Every Advent, this is what we long for--the coming of the Christ anew in our lives. The coming of the Saving One into our wounded world. When we are surrounded by suffering and pain, it is easy to wonder why God hasn't rushed in to heal all that is broken. Pakistan, Ferguson, Iraq, cancer, hurting marriages, hungry families...
The wisdom of the Church and God's Word tell us that all things work for his glory and for the good of the Kingdom. And I'm confident that suffering is one of those mysteries that I will never fully comprehend this side of Heaven. But in the face of pain, pure theology doesn't always offer the comfort that we wish it could.
The mystery that we long for in Advent, the one that we rejoice over at Christmas is the mystery of the Incarnation--a tiny, helpless baby laid in a manger. Son of the Most High, made one of us. Perhaps that is where we can find the comfort that we seek. If we didn't know any better, we might look at that scene and find it ordinary. Another woman, bringing her child into the world. And yet we know that birth, humble and un-extraordinary as it may have seemed, changed the world. And because our God is outside of time, we get to experience that incarnational mystery anew even today. Not just remember it, but truly experience it: Christ, coming to dwell with us...in us.
So what do we learn from this Christmas story that we know so well? I don't really think about those familiar stories as much as I should. But as I was listening to In the Bleak Midwinter, I was thinking about the Christmas story characters. Shepherds, Wise Men, Mary and Joseph... If it were me, and I sought and found Jesus, I would probably approach him with a list of things that needed fixing. But in the Christmas story, everyone comes and gives to Jesus. Mary and Joseph presumably spend their lives raising and giving to him, as all parents do. The wise men came with gifts. And that's what struck me about the last stanza of the song:
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 can I give him? Give him my heart.
I think we all feel a little bleak this Advent. Our hearts are hardened by the sin and sadness in our world today. And we want God to come down and fix it. But just as the world was changed infinitely and almost undetectably in that moment of Christ's birth, so it is when Christ comes to birth in our hearts. We might not feel it or see it. And it might be hard to understand God's timing or purpose. But our inability to see it does not mean it doesn't exist. Instead of asking and pleading for God to fix it, we could take a lesson from the Christmas story. We can ask ourselves, "What can I give him?" Because by asking ourselves that question, that is how God brings about his work on this earth.
Emmanuel: God with us.