Love came down at Christmas - Reflection by Canon Neal


Read Canon Neal's reflection for Tuesday, 22 December 2020.

I do love the words of the carol, “Love came down at Christmas” which has perhaps dropped out of common usage these days. Yes, this short, and yet poignant poem by Christina Rossetti, really sums up for me the kernel of the message of Christmas. It reminds me that it was the deep love of God the Father for us his children that prompted him to ask Jesus to come to earth as a human being, and Jesus’ love for us that prompted him to accept that ministry of self-giving. 

Yet it is the final verse that especially packs the punch for me:

“Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and neighbour,
love for prayer and gift and sign.”

In other words, whatever we do at Christmas, as we celebrate God’s love coming among us, Emmanuel, should prompt us to show love for one another not just in terms of warm feelings but of actions that make a difference in our troubled world. This came home to me so powerfully ten years ago, almost to the day.

At the time, I was Vicar of a city-centre church on the other side of the Pennines. The end of 2010 was a terribly bitter affair, with heavy snow in late November and thick ice on the pavements for weeks on end. In the run-up to Christmas, night-time temperatures were down to as low as -13°C, and with a nithering wind-chill to boot. Near to the church were a couple of hostels for men who were homeless. They were not exactly the Ritz, but at least offered a warm and dry bed for the night, plus a hot evening meal and breakfast. We used to see quite a few of these men wondering into our church during the day-times, looking for some (relative!) warmth and somewhere for a hot drink and snack. Two of these were Mike and John (not their real names). They seemed to look out for each other, and were both in the same hostel. But Mike had got into several fights at the hostel and was on a final warning. The next time he started with the agro he would be out straight away. Fair enough – the hostel needed to be safe for everyone else. One morning, though, they both came into church absolutely frozen, dishevelled and damp. They were starving and ashen white. It turned out that, the previous evening, Mike had started a punch-up and was thrown out in the middle of the night back onto the streets, into the bitter weather. John had been fast asleep in his room, but was woken by the commotion outside. Mike had gone by the time that John got into the corridor. What happened next was remarkable. John put his outer clothes back on, stuffed his meagre belongings into his carrier bag and checked out of the hostel, giving up the chance of a dry and warm bed and hot breakfast. As he said, he couldn’t leave Mike outside on a night like this to fend for himself. John went and eventually found Mike in a doorway shivering. And there the two of them huddled together to try and share what warmth they had.

When I heard this the following morning I was stopped in my tracks. Utterly, utterly amazing. I had been preaching for years about what love is and trying to fathom its depths; yet in one truly self-sacrificial gesture, John had shown me a stunning example of what true love is – love in action. I found myself questioning whether I would have given up my place in a warm and dry hostel, to head into the inevitable misery and danger of such a night.

At this Cathedral, we desire that everyone who comes into our courts (physically or virtually!) will indeed encounter the God who knows them and loves them. No more so is that true than at Christmas. And this Christmas of all Christmasses. We also pray that people would find ways to respond to that love, by receiving it in their lives, and also to share that love with those around them, and especially those whom they find it hard to love. We may not be asked to do what John did for Mike, but God surely asks us to be open to that kind of self-sacrificial love which came down to us at that first Christmas, a love which is made evident in action; in “prayer and gift and sign.”

May you all have a peaceful Christmas and a hope-filled New Year, and bring some peace and hope to others too.

Canon Neal

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