When I read this way back in September, I just knew I needed to come back to it for Christmas. This is from W.H. Vanstone’s Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, a short reflection by the late English theologian-priest on the nature of God’s love. You can’t talk about God’s love becoming knowable without talking about Christmas, which is why Vanstone tells this simple story. What becomes clear though, is how this depiction of God’s love—which looks discomfortingly like helplessness—is evacuated from our usual understandings of Christmas. In the story, Vanstone is closing up the church in preparation for services the following day, and there meets a disruption to his pretty Christmas picture.

The Word of God discloses to us at Christmas the helplessness of love at the hands of its own creatures—the fact that it is in their hands, vulnerable to their hands, dependent upon their hands for its own triumphant or tragic issue. But the disclosure is made graciously, in the form and presence of a Child. The helplessness of a child is a manageable helplessness, about which we know what we may do, by which our heart and our will are touched. It is not a harrowing helplessness, before which one who saw it might stand appalled. The same truth, the tragic possibility of the love of God, might have been exposed to us in harrowing and appalling form.

On a certain night, shortly before Christmas, I stood in the beautiful church which, in due time, rose beside the commonplace building where, at the first, the people of a new community had worshipped. The Church was ready for Christmas; and the quiet light of candles enhanced its tranquility and beauty. It was very late: but the beauty of Christmas and of its symbols seemed peculiarly intense that night; and I was glad to receive it while I might. I was disturbed by a noise behind me—a dull thud: and I saw, against the glass door, a face pressed, and grotesquely distorted by the pressure. A man was half slumped, half kneeling against the door. He was drunk; and when we talked and he gradually became more sober, it was clear that, though he was quite young, he was already an alcoholic. His experience of life was nothing but the experience of conflict and squalor: and at Christmas he expected nothing different. When at last I retired to sleep my mind must have dwelt on the tragic and distorted face which had, so to speak, invaded the beauty of Christmas. For I dreamed: and in my dream a rubbish-collector came to me and told me that he had been clearing up after a riot; and I myself saw a huge pile of stones and cans and waste paper and scrap metal which he had collected. Then the man touched my arm and said, ‘But what am I to do? For deep within the pile, buried at the bottom of it, I have seen a living face.’ Though my own eyes did not see a face, I knew in my dream that it must be the face of God.

A few hours later, when I preached in Church, I was compelled to speak of my dream. For it seemed to suggest a different way in which the truth of Christmas might have been disclosed—a harrowing and appalling way. It made one newly sensitive to, and grateful for, the graciousness of the way in which the truth of Christmas is in fact disclosed to us. But, in substance, it was the same truth. It was the truth of a God Who, in love, is totally expended for the being of His creation—so that He is helpless under its weight and barely survives for its everlasting support; so that, in the tragedies of creation, in its waste and rubbish, God Himself is exposed to tragedy: so that the creation is sustained at the cost of the agony of the One Who is buried and almost wholly submerged within the depths of it.