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Words: Christina Georgina Rossetti (b. Dec. 5, 1830; d. Dec. 29, 1894)
Music: Gartan, a traditional Irish melody
Note: The carol began as a Christmas poem–one of many poems by Miss Rossetti exploring that theme. This one was published in 1885 in a book entitled Time Flies: A Reading Diary. In the book it was simply called “Christmastide.” The tune was named after Lough Gartan, a small lake in County Donegal, Ireland.
This is one of those hymns by a master poet that says more in a few simple words that many with lesser gifts can say with hymns two or three times as long.
Love. It’s a much abused and misused term in our world today. Unfortunately, when books, movies, and secular songs speak of “love,” they are often describing lust. Love sacrificially gives; lust selfishly takes. (In a sense the opposite of love as lust.) For others, love is warm and sentimental feelings, which often have more to do with daydreams, built on proximity and hormones, than with the will.
And love is an act of the will. It may be accompanied by a warmth of feeling, or it may not. But first of all it is a choice–the decision to give sacrificially for the good and blessing of another person. And the greatest thing a loving person can give is himself. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). That is true at the human level. We love our friends–perhaps even to that extent. But what about our enemies? God’s love encompasses them too.
In the Bible, we are told that “When we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). “God so loved that He gave” (Jn. 3:16)–gave His beloved Son to suffer and die on a cross to pay our debt of sin. His love was not a response to our love. Just the opposite. “We [believers] love Him because He first loved us” (I Jn. 4:19). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Some form of the word “love” is found hundreds of times in the Bible. The very first reference concerns Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son on an altar, at God’s command (Gen. 22:1-14). Of course, God did not actually want the death of Isaac, but wanted to see Abraham’s willingness to give up the son whom he loved dearly. It was a test of faith. And in this incident we have what is called a type, an Old Testament foreshadowing of New Testament truth. God’s offering up of His Son to die (Jn. 3:16) is the antitype.
And Christ was not an unwilling participant in this pivotal event. Though, in His human frailty, he shrank from the pain of the cross, He submitted to the Father’s will (Matt. 26:39). He came to do His Father’s will, and determined to do it to the end (cf. Mk. 10:45). “The Son of God…loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20)–”Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Rev. 1:5).
Love is such a dominant and outstanding characteristic of God, such an intrinsic part of His nature, that the Bible says, “God is love” (I Jn. 4:8, 16). It is the context of these verses (vs. 7-11) that was the inspiration for Christina Rossetti’s beautiful song. She personifies Love, and tells us that, in the incarnation, “Love came down.”
CH-1) Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
“Star and angels gave the sign.” How simple the telling of what we read in Luke chapter 2. Among other things, the manger for example, the Christmas star (Matt. 2:2, 9), and the angelic visitation were signs that something extraordinary was happening. In John’s words, “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).
Rossetti’s second stanza is one of personal worship, as she recognizes the deity of Christ. But if He is in the truest sense “our Jesus,” our Lord and Saviour, by what sign will this be evident?
CH-2) Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
The author’s answer is that the very Love that came from heaven’s glory in the person of the Lord Jesus will radiate from our own lives. Her original last line read, “Love the universal sign.” But she revised this herself to what we have now. Love is our plea–what we seek (I Jn. 4:11); Love our gift to God and others (Jn. 13:34); and love our sign that we belong to Him (Jn. 13:35).
CH-3) Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
1) Can you recall, in your recent experience, an example of true Christ-like love?
2) What are some hymns you know and use about the love of God?