Faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
There’s a country western Christmas song that tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of the angels. The heart of the song is in its one-line refrain: And the angels cried.
If you’ve ever held a newborn in your arms, you know why: they cried for love.
Throughout Advent I’ve been pondering what is essential to the Christian faith. By essential, I don’t mean what is indispensable, but rather what is its essence, the foundation upon which all else rests, and what will remain when all else is gone. In previous posts, I wrote of faith as our response to the mysterious stirrings of grace in our lives and described how hope can come to us amid the hardest things.
Now, as Christmas draws near, I write of what the Apostle Paul considered the greatest gift of all.
We use the word love to describe everything from our personal preferences to our most cherished relationships. Paul’s word for love here is agape, which refers to the love of God. It runs deeper than anything we can fathom or express on our own. God’s love is unmerited, unconditional, and eternal. We cannot earn or lose God’s love, for it is God’s essence.
When we experience God’s love, we can’t help but be changed for the better. When we witness such love manifest in another person, we are inspired beyond words. And when we’re given the grace to offer an expression of God’s love for someone else, we feel blessed even as we’re being asked to stretch far beyond our human capacities and sacrifice our own desires.
It’s often said that this kind of love is more a choice than a feeling, which is true in the sense that receiving God’s love and sharing it with others isn’t dependent on how loving we feel. But powerful emotions often accompany the experience of God’s love. Like the angels, we can be moved to the point of tears.
Think of those times, for example, when it’s as if we’re given eyes to see as God sees and a heart to love as God loves, if only for a moment. It often happens at the birth of a child. Holding a newborn, we look into the eyes of a miracle and our love is pure and complete. It can also happen when something precious in our life is coming to an end, or at the end of life itself. Suddenly we see clearly what we had previously taken for granted, and our hearts burst with love for what we must now surrender. Like the angels, we cry.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once said that if you want to know what God is really like, look no further than the manger and the cross. “God acts by giving away all strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the manger and the cross.”1
The truth is we may wish for a different kind of love from God. For God’s love, when we experience it, doesn’t magically fix us or the world in which we live. For reasons we will never fully understand, when God comes to us in Jesus, he prefers to make his home inside our vulnerabilities rather than remove them. God is also patient, and waits for us to open the door. We’re always free to say no. As Richard Rohr writes, “Divine Loving is so pure that it never manipulates, shames, or forces itself on anyone. Love waits to be invited and desired, and only then rushes in.”2
If you wonder where God’s love will next show up for you, you might try looking in the places where some part of your life is either beginning or ending. Go there in your mind’s eye and ask for the grace to see as God sees and to love as God’s love. Another place to look is where you feel most unworthy of God’s love and spend time there, again inviting Jesus to reveal his presence to you there. Another place to look is the eyes of those for whom love comes easily to you, and in the eyes of those whom you struggle to love. Look in the mirror; listen to the sound of your own voice; consider the beating of your own heart for the miracle that it is. Then cast your gaze across the globe and imagine the possibility of God’s love manifesting itself in places marked by sorrow and suffering, wonder and joy.
Like the angels, you needn’t be afraid to shed a few tears at the sorrow and the joy of it all, the wonder of life and the mystery of love. Christ comes to your place of tears with the greatest of gifts, given to you from the heart of God.
1 From a Christmas sermon Rowan Williams preached in 2004.
2 Richard, Rohr, The Importance of Practice