(Link to the music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-W1tRHQLdY)
Edward Caswall (1814-1878) penned buoyant words concerning the birth of the God-Man in 1858, after he had seen much sorrow. See Amid the Winter’s Snow is a stirring carol that goes brilliantly with Salvation Army band music, as I first learned it. Its range of expression, from the contemplative to the celebratory, works well with the full range of brass instruments, from mellow flugel and alto horns, to incisive cornets and trombone. The different “voices” in the instrumental arrangements mirror the various speakers — the Baptist, the narrator, the congregation, the shepherds.
Surely a poetic John the Baptist begins the carol, pointing his prophetic figure to “the Lamb” of God:
See, amid the winter’s snow,
Born for us on Earth below,
See, the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years.
Of course, it is possible that Bethlehem’s hills saw snow, but the provenance of the carol conjures more the sight of England (or North America!) than Judaea. However, the image speaks theological truth, reminding us, as did C. S. Lewis, of a time when it was “always winter, and never Christmas.” The deep freeze of sin and mortality held all captive until the birth of the tender Lamb, who would feel its bite, yet vanquish it. For though vulnerably human, he was the Lamb promised and “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). The Incarnation, life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of God the Son was not God’s “plan B,” but ever in the mind of the One who loves and “risks” all for us. Before there was ever a prophet to point forward to Him, God himself spoke in the garden of the One who would bruise the Serpent’s head, the Seed of the woman. God Himself would take the stone (and ice) out of the human heart.
Seeing our promised salvation, we burst out in the exuberant refrain that weaves between the verses:
Hail, thou ever blessed morn,
Hail redemption’s happy dawn,
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
The “Hail!” takes us imaginatively to the second woman who said “yes,” over against Eve’s “no.” So Gabriel greeted holy Mary, and so we greet the Morning Star, come for us in humble Bethlehem, as promised by Micah (5:2). As Psalm 13 foresaw, He would redeem the slaves who called to Him out of darkness, bringing them into the light.
After being directed to the Lamb, and rejoicing at the news, we zoom up close to that all-too-familiar scene:
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He who, throned in height sublime,
Sits among the cherubim.
The language forbids sentimentality! It begins with the visionary, “Lo!” and by its grammatical solecism – grammarians would prefer “Him who built”— reminds us that God always initiates the action! Within the manger lies the Creator of the stars who look down on Him. In a feeding trough lies the One whose role is to ride enthroned on the cherubim. Contrasting images remind us of other ancient hymns that have tackled this wonder. So the ancient East sings and we Orthodox sing:
“I behold a strange and wonderful mystery:
the cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne,
and the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ the uncontained God”
And the Western Richard Crashaw (“In the Nativity of our Lord”) has his shepherds exclaim:
Welcome all wonders in one sight,
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Brave little one! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth!
We wonder, with these poets, at that the very One whom Isaiah saw lifted up on the cherubim, now embedded in the bowels of creature-hood. The refrain, “Hail!” aptly bursts forth at God’s humble appearance.
Then there come unlikely messengers—human shepherds to attend the Lamb of God. Like Amos, the shepherd-prophet, they have news for all:
Say, ye holy shepherds, say,
What your joyful news today;
Wherefore have ye left your sheep
On the lonely mountain steep?
“As we watched at dead of night,
Lo, we saw a wondrous light:
Angels singing ‘Peace On Earth’
Told us of the Saviour’s birth.”
Yes, this happened in “dead of night,” the place where shepherds (and humans) are found, the place where the Light of the world shines, beyond human comprehension. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! God’s peace, the mystery of God, caused lowly shepherds to leave their meager livelihood for something priceless. The mystery of the ages, wondered at even by angels, is disclosed to the most humble among us.
And now we have our chance to enter the song. With the narrator, we celebrate the “tenderness” of the Lamb, and His full entry into our human condition. The God-Man—an infant (literally, “unable to speak”), is also “all divine,” and beckons us with his unimaginable love:
Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was Thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this.
The carol points to the Great Miracle, pictures paradoxically the One who has come, places humble humans in dialogue, and theologizes about God’s heart-breaking love. Each stanza is punctuated by the refrain, as joy grows concerning our redemption. And now, what more is there to say?
Actually, two more things, but most congregations only register the first in their caroling. First, we turn from God’s activity to ours, for God has become one of us, that we might become like Him!
Teach, O teach us, Holy Child,
By Thy face so meek and mild,
Teach us to resemble Thee,
In Thy sweet humility.
Of course, there is a trend in our day to wholly eschew the “meek and mild” Jesus of this carol and “Jesus loves me!’ But to do so is to downplay a major stream in the Scriptures: Isaiah’s suffering servant, who “did not open his mouth,” but was like a lamb led to the slaughter. Jesus’ meekness, and the holy God’s mild disposition towards His enemies are not the whole story, of course. He is also the Judge of which the prophet can ask, “But who may abide the day of His coming?” Yet His humility is palpable. It is He who carried the cross, and teaches us to do the same. It is He who said, “unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter into the rule of God.” The One who bears a rod of iron comes meekly— borne towards Bethlehem within his Loving mother, and later on Palm Sunday. And so we turn to the very last thing this carol has to say.
This same meekness seen in the Lamb we behold in her character as well. She said “yes” to God, and treasured divine secrets in her heart. Though the ethical demands of the gospel are extreme, we are not left to our own devices. Yes, must be prepared to follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Rev. 14:4)—even to the cross! But we are bolstered by the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially by the prayers of that one whom He gave to John, and so to all his beloved, as His mother. Our hymnodist does not shy away from asking for her help. Instead, his final verse offers words of praise and makes a deep request:
Virgin Mother, Mary blest
By the joys that fill thy breast,
Pray for us, that we may prove
Worthy of the Saviour’s love.
How sad that this final verse is unknown to many! For it reminds us of the communion of saints, and the joy that those who know Him better cheer us on, all unseen. In our mother Mary’s mediation, we see the fruit of Jesus’ coming among us—that we may be like Him, always concerned for the well-being of others. His characteristic love now becomes the trait of His Church, as we pray for each other, and become the object of others’ prayers. Whom best to show us this compassion than the simple virgin who became “more glorious than the seraphim and more honorable than the cherubim?”
With all this in mind, we sing again, “Hail thou ever-blessed morn!” With the holy Theotokos, we treasure all these joys in our heart, focusing upon the Child who has brought us such joy.