- Singing the Faith: 210ii (CD9 #11)
- Christina Georgina Rossetti
- “St Hilda Street” by David Barton
Ideas for use
You may wish to sing this short carol twice in a service: once as a quiet opening, a statement of belief and of why we have gathered for worship; and once as a reflective closing hymn, summing up all we understand about the meaning and implications of the Christmas story.
It is especially suitable for the intimacy of a Christmas Eve service with candles, and might be sung seated, as a prayer.
In this disarmingly simple poem (never in fact intended to be sung as a carol), Christina Rossetti manages to evoke the manger scene in Bethlehem without actually describing it – and at the same time move beyond it or deeper into it.
A phrase such as “Love all lovely, Love divine” (v.1) has the intimacy of a welcome whispered to a new-born baby but, at the same time, reveals the deep, unfathomable mystery of God at work. It echoes other, mightier-sounding, hymns: Love divine, all loves excelling (StF 503); or Charles Wesley’s great Christmas hymn, Let earth and heaven combine (StF 208). But Rossetti’s lines, suggesting 1 John 4:7-11, somehow get closer to the human (more feminine?) experience of the first Christmas – the close bond between the child and his mother. It’s that relationship, unamplified by centuries of theology and worship, that is also at the heart of Rossetti’s other poem included in Singing the Faith: In the bleak midwinter (StF 204).
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The second verse ends with (to our ears) an archaic phrase: “but wherewith for sacred sign?” It echoes the end of the first verse: “star and angels gave the sign”. A sign of God’s presence in Bethlehem was given to the wise men by a star and to the shepherds by singing angels. But where, and with what, will that sign now be shown? By what means will God-in-Jesus be revealed? As in her conclusion to In the bleak midwinter (“yet what I can I give him, give my heart”), Rossetti implies that it is down to the way we respond to Jesus and to each other that the sign that God came down at Christmas will be made visble again.
And what of the last line: “love for plea and gift and sign”? The plea suggests the kind of statement that we might offer (or plead) in court: a summary of where we stand and what we believe. God’s love, which we live out, becomes at once our plea; the gift we are given and give to others; and the sign that God is present now as in Bethlehem.
A contemporary take on this carol (re-working the tune "Hermitage", StF 210i) was produced by the Christian rock band Jars of Clay in 2007. The accompanying animated video comes complete with dinosaurs and unicorn.
You can find out more about Christina Rossetti on The Victorian Web. A substantial biography is also available on The Poetry Foundation website.