Why is it that I have more trouble thinking of something to say about the theme of Love at Christmastime, compared to the previous three Sundays of Advent? It was easy to think of something to say about Hope, Peace, and Joy. But Love? It seems almost trite to say that Christmas is about love.
I try to think of Scriptures related to Jesus’ birth that mention love, and realize that I can’t think of any. The angels talked about joy and about peace, and all the prophecies about the Messiah imply hope. But I can’t think of any that mention love.
Is that because love is so basic to the idea of God that it hardly seems necessary to mention? Is it because, at the time, the events surrounding Jesus’ birth induced feelings of fear and confusion more than love? Is it because the meaning of Jesus’ birth only made sense long afterward?
I’m guessing that Joseph loved Mary, but all Matthew 1 actually says is that he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” After the angel appeared to him in a dream, “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” How many women would want to know that their husbands married them because they were commanded to do so? Yet acting out of obedience doesn’t mean one is not also acting out of love.
New parents find out a lot about what it means to love, when they have to get up, bleary-eyed, to change and feed a wailing infant. One doesn’t feel very loving sometimes, while cleaning up poop that somehow managed to escape the diaper, or wiping vomit off furniture that the sometimes-adorable baby spewed across a friend’s dining room.
I always found it difficult to feel loved by God, before I had my own children. I could believe that it was true, but it didn’t make me feel much of anything. I felt bad that I felt so much stronger feelings about being loved by other people than by God. I could believe, with my mind, that God loved me more than any of those people. But the idea only made me feel guilty for not feeling much love for Him in return.
Then I had a baby and learned what it meant to love someone who could not love me in the same way I loved him. He reached out for me, which was the only love he was capable of giving me at that point, while I did everything for him. But when I felt those little arms holding me as I held him, I knew that he was loving me in the way he was able to.
And I imagined God holding me the way I held baby Zach, and me reaching out to hold onto God with my tiny arms. God did everything for me, and all I could do was reach up to Him and accept His love. But if I was happy to have my little boy holding me, then I could also believe that God was happy to have me reach out to Him, even if my love for Him was terribly feeble by comparison with His own.
I think about love and duty as I walk the dog in the early, frosty morning, hoping she will poop soon so I can return to the warm house. I think about it as I wash the dishes. Sometimes we speak of doing something out of love, or out of duty, as though they were two separate things. But in my experience they very often go together.
I can’t imagine what the Father felt when He sent His Son into the world – or what the Son felt, going. While some people say we’ll understand everything in heaven, I think there are some things that are simply beyond the capacity of humans to really understand. I don’t know if the incarnation is one of them, but I tend to think so.
What we do understand, though, is enough. Our own experiences of love, especially within family relationships, teach us enough of what it means to love and to be loved, that we can have a least some notion what it means to say that God loves us. And while Christmas has not always been celebrated as the family celebration that it is in our society today (I have read that how we think of Christmas today is in large part the result of Charles Dickens’ influence), I think it’s a good thing that family is so important in our celebrations today.
I try not to spend a whole lot on presents, decorations, and food. You can have a great holiday without spending a lot. But I wouldn’t want to give up the presents, decorations, and food, either. They’re not essential to Christmas by any means. But they shape the ways we enjoy this season as a family, and share our love for each other as we decorate together, exchange presents, and share special foods.
May the love of God be very real to you this Christmas, and always.