Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) shares my December 5 birthday, but she beat me to it by 106 years. She was one of the most well-know Victorian poets, and she wrote frequently and passionately about her faith journey. Two of her poems have become part of our Christmas tradition. The one has provided the lyrics for the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The other has been the inspiration for numerous musical and dramatic settings:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
The word “love” is mentioned ten times in the twelve lines of this brief poem, so there’s no missing what Rossetti’s message is. She seems to be trying to express how all-encompassing love is in the Christmas message: “Love was born at Christmas”; that is, something brand new was breaking into the human experience in that manger bed. In the last stanza, she seems to be saying that love can’t be further defined or analyzed; it’s its own “plea and gift and sign.” Our return love to God and our selfless love of other people are the evidence of the love that “came down at Christmas.”
A little knowledge about Christina Rossetti’s life may help us understand why this reality was so important to her. She was born to an Italian refugee family that moved to London because of the political turmoil in their homeland. Her father Gabriele was a published poet and a college Italian language teacher. When Christina was thirteen, however, Gabriele’s health collapsed because of lung problems, and he spent the last eleven years of his life as a semi-invalid suffering frequent bouts of depression. Her mother and sister had to work to keep the family out of poverty. At the age of fourteen pressures on her family contributed to Christina’s going through a “nervous breakdown.” God used this experience to lead her into a deeper relationship with him and this spirituality dominated the rest of her life.
During Christina’s late teens and early twenties, she had three different suitors who seemed to be prospects for a life partner, but all these relationships fell through, partly because her spiritual standards were so high. Her closest friendship was with her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who emerged as a well-respected painter and poet himself. However, wounded by a particularly harsh critical review of his work in 1872, Dante went through his own emotional collapse. Afterwards, he fell into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse which dominated the last ten years of his life.
So instead of love, Christina Rossetti suffered a lot of pain through the personal relationships in her life. That’s why she valued her friendship with God so much. For her, “Love came down at Christmas,” and that divine love is what made her life worth living. This love also spilled over, through her poetry, into the lives of countless others.
— Pastor George Van Alstine