Christmas, love and charity

Tue, Dec 24, 2013, 01:00

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.

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