From the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Touchstone

 

Love Came Down by Anthony Esolen

Illuminations

Love Came Down

Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns

'Tis the season to be buying,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Mom's exhausted, baby's crying,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Charge on credit all we covet,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la!
Though we have no place to shove it,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

One of the few columns of a Christian culture that still stands in the secular city is Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Everyone knows, or supposes, that Scrooge's problem was greed, and that Bob Cratchit's problem was poverty. Everyone knows, or supposes, that the whole aim of the three Ghosts of Christmas was to loosen up Scrooge's claw-hold on his purse, so that he might give a little to Bob Cratchit and his struggling family. That's why the strangely unpleasant film Scrooge ends with Albert Finney, a miser turned prodigal, shoveling out coins everywhere, looking like that old confidence man Santa Claus, with a jollity approaching the manic.

But Dickens' novel is not centrally about increasing your charitable donations. It is about the coming to life of a dead soul. There is an Easter in his Christmas. "I am quite a baby," says Scrooge the reborn, on that Christmas morning. Dickens has set his face like flint against all the paths of death, which is to say against all systems that reduce human beings to consumers, or to providers of goods, or to counters in a fearful utilitarian reckoning.

If you are someone who thinks for one moment that it might be "better" for everyone concerned if that child with Down syndrome is snuffed in the womb, Dickens has you ranged with far worse than Scrooge. Do you believe that the poor recipients of your giving ought to be rated according to how much of a utilitarian "return" they can give back? Kindly take your place among Dickens' other ideologues, parasites, extortionists, and villains, who regard their brothers and sisters as if they were members of a completely different species. Christmas is no holiday for followers of Malthus or Bentham.

"Love is not love," says Shakespeare, "which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove." Love does not tally advantages. It does not count the cost. We cannot say without contradicting ourselves, "I shall now consider how deeply I shall love you, adjusting the degree to my needs and circumstances." We cannot say without contradicting ourselves, "If you grow twice as wealthy, I shall love you twice as much."

Max Scheler says that Jesus praised the widow who gave her mite, not because it was a relatively large percentage of her means, but because it was a greater token of her love. We do not want "love" so that there will be more charitable giving. Love, says Scheler, is its own end: it is what we want more of; we want that there should be more love in the world.

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Gift & Sign

Which brings me to a beautiful little carol by one of Dickens' contemporaries, Christina Rossetti. Most of us know her haunting "In the Bleak Midwinter."This one, "Love Came Down at Christmas"(set to the childlike Irish melody, Garton), is in the same spirit, but is even simpler, one might say simple in its intensity. Miss Rossetti has one thing in mind: love. She will not let our attention stray from that. Jesus loves us, true enough. But he is himself Love:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angel gave the sign.

Think of that line. Don't toss it away. Don't dismiss it as a poetic flourish. Love was born at Christmas. That is quite literally true; Jesus, who is Love, was born at Christmas. But it is more than a theological claim. It proclaims the world-shattering event, the new thing that has happened in an old and dying world, a sinful and wintry world. The sign? A star to the magi, an angel to the shepherds. To the important utilitarians of the world, what sign could penetrate that tortoise shell of the skull? Nothing, nothing but second-hand rumors of something or other in the countryside.

We come to that Child to adore:

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

"What can I give him?" she asked in her other carol. The question here is similar. What can we possibly bring as a sacred sign that we acknowledge his divinity? We have no star in our pocket, no angel ready at our bidding.

The answer, in the final stanza, is so simple and so profound, to explain it to a utilitarian would be like explaining Giotto to an earwig. Rossetti has set up her stanzas so that they rhyme with one another, each of them ending on the word "sign."The first two stanzas rhyme on the word Divine, but now we ourselves, in the rhyme, are brought into company with that divinity:

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Bending the Knee in Love

The gift of Love brings us into the life of giving. Adoring Jesus, we bend the knee in love, and then all men to us are brother shepherds on the hillside, brother stargazers on the caravan. We plead for love, and we give love, and that love is itself the mighty star in the night sky, and the angel herald proclaiming good tidings of great joy. •


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“Love Came Down” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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