Christmas carols are lovely, but so often they just roll right over me. The words to many of the carols found in the Hymnal 1982 are wonderful, but they are associated for me with childhood memories, bits of forgotten television specials and cups of hot cider on cold December afternoons. None of that is bad, but it does rob them of their power to speak to me about the mystery of Incarnation, the deep and abiding truth of Christmas. It takes something a little less familiar and a little more simple to wake me up and shake me out of my Christmas complacency.
When Jars of Clay put out their Christmas album a few years ago, I heard Love Came Down at Christmas for the first time and found it quite moving. I assumed at first that the band had written it and was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was in the Hymnal. It is a short hymn, spanning just three verses. As with many great hymns, it began as a poem, and unlike most other Christmas carols it does not have one particular tune associated with it. The Irish melody Gartan that accompanies it in the Hymnal 1982 is but one of many options (and honestly, not to my ear the best.) But the words are where the action is, not just in what they say but in how they say it.
“Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.” The power of poetry is in the way it rolls off your tongue. That’s what melts your heart. It may seem redundant or even non-sensical to say that love is lovely, but in saying it, in singing it, there is a kind of opening of the spirit. It is subtle, but a question lives there. What does it mean to be lovely? What does it mean to be love? We say that God is love all the time. It is a fairly popular idea, actually. People who have no taste at all for the Christian faith are happy to affirm the aphorism that God is love. But I dare say that the problem that most of us have with saying such a thing is not just that we do not have any real concept of God, but that we do not have any real concept of love.
Whenever I sit with young couples who are preparing to be married, I ask them what love is. They usually say that it is an emotion, something you feel for someone when you truly care about them and just cannot stop thinking about them. Their response mirrors the way that western culture at large has come to envision love. It is not that people are unaware of the sacrifices of love, but they see such sacrifices as the result of love, not the definition of it. The feeling comes first. The response is doing good for the object of our affection. In reality, though, this is backwards. We love first through sacrifice, through the total giving of ourselves, the placing of the other’s needs above our own. Whatever emotional appeal comes after that is gravy. Love is in the action. You can find someone disgusting in many ways and still love them. What you cannot do is to treat them with indifference and think that your good feelings about them makes up for it.
True, sacrificial love, like so much else we do, is an impossible task for sinners so curved in on ourselves that we cannot see past our own shadows. It is not something we do naturally. When we are able to love like that, to make “love our token,” it is the result of what has been given to us. “In this is love,” says John, “not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Love is propitiation. Love is sacrifice. It is God’s sacrifice. We only know what love is because we know who He is and what He has done, giving Himself for us not when we deserved it but when we did not deserve it, when we were at our worst (Romans 5:8).
Love is sacrifice, but love is also God. And the very act of God becoming man is itself the beginning of that sacrifice, the reality of love made flesh. To say “Love was born at Christmas” is not a truism meant to give us warm and fuzzies. It is a stark, beautiful, difficult truth. The birth of the Son of God was the embodiment of sacrifice, the beginning of His death and consequently the beginning of the end of ours.