First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
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.
(Last stanza, In the bleak midwinter, Christina Rosetti)
I absolutely love Christmas hymns and wish, in our tradition, we sang them just a little longer. And even among my many favorites, In the Bleak Midwinter, the words by Christina Rosetti, stands out as a super favorite, like a super-delegate for Christmas hymns.
Rosetti’s poem, from which the hymn is taken, tells us how we are saved from a world of iron – hard and impenetrable – by God’s redeeming work in Christ. The Christ-light, born into us, I believe, causes us to seek something with which we can break free from the iron’s hold, even if we have never heard the name of Jesus. And we might ask ourselves, “How do we move from needing, wanting, and seeking our freedom – some escape from the world’s hardness – and move to a different place, a way of life that means giving, instead? Well, I think it might be helpful and holy to look at Rosetti’s final stanza In the Bleak Midwinter for our answer.
At Christmas, we celebrate the great gift of God that we receive in Jesus Christ; the One who, as Christina Rosetti writes in another Christmas poem of hers – came down at Christmas. And like Isaiah, we rightly focus on the overwhelming joy and victory of all that God has done for us in His breaking open the iron of sin, death, and isolation that can be the world, as He brings the Light of hope and salvation in Jesus, the Christ Child. Christmas is, after all, a time for receiving, right? For getting things? We get presents, we get to see family and friends who, perhaps, we don’t get to see as often anymore. We are afforded the opportunity to give, as well: presents, love, and maybe even giving to community and charitable organizations. So, we understand that Christmas is not just about receiving, it is about giving, too; we get it…sort of. And receiving God’s grace in Christ Jesus can feel a lot like that paradigm: one of receiving and in this case, so far out of measure of our deserving.
But Christina Rosetti poses a truly important question as she writes: “What can I give Him, poor as I am ...? In other words, what can I give the Lord of all creation, who, in His great mercy, kindness, and patient love has given himself to the world? What do have to give to God, because God needs nothing from us, right? Not money. Not support. No hand up. There is nothing that we can possibly give that God could not do without, yes? And yet, God has created us not as co-equals but as partners in this worldly enterprise and uses us to bring about His goodness and we can work a lifetime to more and more freely give of ourselves to the God who desires only that from us.
Does anyone know anything about Christina Rosetti? She was one of the foremost poets of the Victorian era, living from 1830–1894. She wrote some fabulously well-known pieces, including The Goblin’s Market, which I saw staged as a musical piece once upon a time. She was completely devoted to her High Church of England faith and worked for more than a decade through Anglican charities with women who had once been drawn and forced into a world of prostitution. She was diagnosed in her forties with Graves’ disease which is a form of hyperthyroidism that has serious side-effects and for which there is no cure; but in the 1870’s there was virtually no treatment. Yet, she believed it was her responsibility to bear with her affliction and continue to help folks, particularly vulnerable young women and girls.
Around the same time she was formally diagnosed with Graves’ disease (1872) which made it more difficult for her to serve the young women she had long championed, Rosetti published the poem In the Bleak Midwinter that tells the story of Christ’s birth, replete with angels and words of salvation. But Rosetti ends the poem (that became the hymn with setting by Harold Darke only many years after her death), by posing the question to us, “So what can I give the Christ Child, poor person – challenged human - that I am?” What can I do in response to God’s overwhelming generosity and grace for me, for us?
Maybe the better question is, “How do I find the strength, the courage, the wisdom to respond to God’s great gift of Himself? How do I or can I give anything when I struggle to know who God really is?” The Gospel of John responds to our dilemma this morning. God, who planned our salvation from the beginning of time, sends Christ as an answer to our caution, confusion, or our inability to say to God, “Here I am. Send me out into the world to proclaim your great love and name. This is how I give my heart to you, O Lord!”
Yes, Jesus came for our salvation and to break the bonds of death and imprisonment. But He also came so that we might find faith, the faith to believe, hope, endure, and the faith to see ourselves as children of God and heirs to the promises of God. Listen to what Paul says.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, give us the strength to cry, "Abba! Father!" So, you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” God literally giving us the strength, freedom, and hope, knowing that we have been adopted through Christ into God’s everlasting family of salvation, to call out to God and to give something back to God: our hearts, our bodies … our very selves. We can’t give anything to God that makes or changes God but we can begin to give everything to Him which God may not need but, I believe, God certainly desires.
If we are to give our hearts to God and realize the blessings of being a child of God (i.e. to better understand them), we have to practice giving our hearts to God. What separates someone like Christina Rosetti, who worked with women formerly engaged in prostitution, and a person with no faith who does the same kind of thing? People of faith are trying to understand that God has died for them, saved them from bondage, and are seeking to give of themselves to God by helping another lost person. And we believe that God gives us grace, through Christ, to love Him and serve Him. How can that not make a difference in the way we minister when our aim is not the work itself (which is important enough) but to glorify and give ourselves to God?
What do we have to give almighty God? We have ourselves. It may not sound like a lot but it is all that God desires, or needs, from His children who he saves, redeems, loves, and brings into being. How do we give ourselves to God because that doesn’t happen by accident? Turning toward God is the best beginning, as we prepare to begin another year, and a new decade, and give to God all that we are and all that we hope to be.