In the bleak mid-winter
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 mid-winter
Long ago.

This is the start of a poem written by Christina Rossetti in the 19th century. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which – if you have not heard the name – you have surely seen the works. Like the poem, they’re a little treacly.

This poem is known to many because it has been transformed into a beloved Christmas hymn, broadcast every year on the radio in the quintessentially Anglican service of “Lessons and Carols” from King’s College, Cambridge. The poem goes on:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

A cold background to the Divine Birth appears again in the echt-Teutonic air “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (overheard in the Stephansdom in Vienna at Midnight Mass) – which in English translation is usually rendered, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”.

The tune most people know appeared in the Speyer Hymnal in Cologne in 1599.

The most common English translation (another nineteenth-century number, by Theodore Baker) runs,

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

There’s that cold again.

And of course there are others. Something described as an “Old English Carol” of which I can find no version published before 1920, begins:

The snow lay on the ground, the stars shone bright
When Christ our Lord was born on Christmas night.”

That’s getting right to the point. We could go on.

I turned to these old songs this week as the temperature dipped below zero and, unfailingly, the Church entered a new liturgical year. We will be wearing purple at Mass from now until Christmas, and, in many of our only-notionally-heated churches, puffing out plumes of steaming breath as we sing, as well.

Cold weather focuses the mind. Having grown up in frigid Wisconsin, I can hardly imagine celebrating Christmas as they do in the Southern Hemisphere, where at Advent they’re nearing the height of summer.

And maybe it’s not just my psychological predilection.

There could be a theological truth here: the contrast of an icy winter with the warm, wet body of a Newborn. The notion that the world resists Christ – making itself impenetrable, so that the ground and even water become defiant.

We don’t have to rely exclusively on Christina Rossetti for this insight:

Divine might can break all earthly resistance while expressing itself as a tiny child. That’s in the Gospel. It’s in Isaiah, too – where, in contrast to the hymnodists’ ice, the prophet gives us butter and honey. Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” (Is 7:14-15)

Cyril of Alexandria, not known for his sweet personality, comments on this honey as a symptom of the helplessness of the baby Christ. “See how, in order to show that he was truly God as well as man, the prophet assigned to him attributes that were both divine and human. For when he says that he was given food suitable for infants, namely butter and honey, he is trying to assure us that he came to be in the flesh in reality.” (Commentary on Isaiah, PG 70, 205A)

The earth is cold and hard. But Christ is coming. He is tiny and even toothless, but He is coming. The ground resists, and we resist, but He is coming — coming anyway.

That’s something worth singing about, every year.