Christmas, love and charity
Christmas trees, Christmas cards, mulled wine, the holly and the ivy, mistletoe, Nine Lessons and Carols … the key ingredients that have come to make up a traditional Christmas are largely the invention of Victorians. Many of those elements are so embedded in our culture that we find it difficult, almost heretical, to think of celebrating Christmas without them.
But some of the most challenging Christmas images that remind us of the true meaning at the heart of the Christmas story are works by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The Star of Bethlehem, which was commissioned in 1887 for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, is a large watercolour showing the arrival of the three kings at the stable in Bethlehem. It is so large that Burne-Jones used a ladder to reach the upper areas as he worked on it, and he complained that the painting was physically tiring: “Up my steps and down, and from right to left. I have journeyed as many miles already as ever the kings travelled”.
When he was asked by a young girl whether he believed in the scene he had depicted in The Star of Bethlehem, Burne-Jones replied: “It is too beautiful not to be true”.
Burne-Jones, like his life-long friend and collaborator William Morris, was deeply influenced by the Christian Socialism associated with Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, and was disturbed by the plight of the working class and the poor in inner cities. In a Latin inscription on another Christmas painting, The Nativity, he summarised his understanding of the Incarnation and Christmas with the words of the Psalmist: “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up, says the Lord” (Psalm 12: 5).
He believed it was the artist’s role to “paint God for the world”, working with the artist’s “power of bringing God into the world – making God manifest. It is giving back her Child that was crucified to Our Lady of the Sorrows”. For that one prominent Victorian, at least, Christmas was not about sentimentality, but about the values expressed in the Christian virtues, the greatest of which is Love.
The English translation of Saint Paul’s words for these virtues in the King James Version of the Bible uses the word charity instead of love (I Corinthians 13: 13). Although that error, based on a Latin text, was corrected in later translations, it continues to remind English-speakers that love and charity are inseparable.
But if charity and love are so inextricably linked, then it is a betrayal of Christmas values that at this time of year the majority of public charities are suffering a severe fall-off in donations because of the actions of a few charity executives and directors. Ultimately, those who may suffer are not charity directors or employees, but the people the charities were set up to benefit.
A self-serving decade
The traditional bidding prayer for Advent, first written by a Victorian bishop, Edward Benson (later Archbishop of Canterbury), for the first Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1880, prays: “Let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love”.
Benson’s words summarise the meaning of Christmas and the meaning of charity. If charities are to recover from the blow they have been dealt in recent weeks, then statutory regulation needs to be introduced speedily. Otherwise, to paraphrase the psalm quoted by Burne-Jones, the poor will remain despoiled, and the needy will continue to groan.
Yet the behaviour of some directors in the charity sector should have been no surprise to any of us. In many ways, this has become the decade of the self-serving, in which self-interest has acquired its own claims. It is a claim that has been validated by “selfie” becoming the word of the year with its inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary, and typified by heads of state indulging in a “selfie” at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
What is surprising is that this should happen in the year that Pope Francis is being fêted by Time magazine as the Man of the Year. Although he too has posed for “selfies”, he has been singled out for his self-effacing humility and his new emphasis on self-giving, charity and love.
In the year that Ireland exited the bailout, and that the charity sector lost its credibility, it restores hope to imagine this Christmas Eve that the year coming to a close may be remembered for generous and brave personalities such as Nelson Mandela and Seamus Heaney, and as the year a Pope restored the true meaning of the Nativity and the birth at Christmas to the heart of the Christian message.