La fe, la esperanza y el amor. Pero el más importante de todos es el amor.
1 Corintios 13:13
Hay una canción navideña estilo country que cuenta la historia del nacimiento de Jesús desde la perspectiva de los ángeles. El corazón de la canción está en su estribillo de una línea: Y los ángeles lloraron.
Si alguna vez has tenido a un recién nacido en tus brazos, sabes por qué: lloraron por amor.
A lo largo del Adviento he estado reflexionando sobre lo que es esencial para la fe cristiana. Por esencial, no me refiero a lo que es indispensable, sino a lo que es su esencia, el fundamento sobre el que descansa todo lo demás y lo que quedará cuando todo lo demás se vaya. En las publicaciones anteriores, escribí de la fe como nuestra respuesta a los misteriosos movimientos de gracia en nuestras vidas y describí cómo la esperanza puede venir a nosotros en medio de las cosas más difíciles.
Ahora, a medida que se acerca la Navidad, escribo de lo que el Apóstol Pablo consideró el regalo más grande de todos.
Usamos la palabra amor para describir todo, desde nuestras preferencias personales hasta nuestras relaciones más queridas. La palabra de Pablo para el amor aquí es ágape, que se refiere al amor de Dios. Es más profundo que cualquier cosa que podamos entender o expresar por nuestra cuenta. El amor de Dios es inmerecido, incondicional y eterno. No podemos ganar ni perder el amor de Dios, porque es la esencia de Dios.
Cuando experimentamos el amor de Dios, no podemos evitar ser cambiados para mejor. Cuando presenciamos tal amor manifestado en otra persona, somos inspirados más allá de las palabras. Y cuando se nos da la gracia de ofrecer una expresión del amor de Dios a alguien más, nos sentimos bendecidos, incluso cuando se nos pide que vayamos mucho más allá de nuestras capacidades humanas y sacrifiquemos nuestros propios deseos.
A menudo se dice que este tipo de amor es más una elección que un sentimiento, lo cual es cierto en el sentido de que recibir el amor de Dios y compartirlo con otros no depende de cuán amorosos nos sentimos. Pero las emociones poderosas acompañan a menudo la experiencia del amor de Dios. Como los ángeles, podemos ser conmovidos al punto de las lágrimas.
Piense en aquellos tiempos en los que, por ejemplo, fue como si nos fueran dados ojos para ver como Dios ve y un corazón para amar como Dios ama, aunque sólo por un momento. A menudo ocurre al nacer un niño. Sosteniendo a un recién nacido, miramos a los ojos de un milagro y nuestro amor es puro y completo. También puede suceder cuando algo precioso en nuestra vida está llegando a su fin, o al final de la vida misma. De repente vemos claramente lo que habíamos dado por sentado anteriormente, y nuestros corazones estallan con amor por lo que ahora debemos rendirnos. Como los ángeles, lloramos.
El ex arzobispo de Canterbury Rowan Williams dijo una vez que si quieres saber cómo es Dios, no busques más que el pesebre y la cruz: “Dios actúa regalando toda fuerza y éxito a medida que los entendemos. El universo vive por un amor que se niega a intimidarnos o forzarnos, el amor del pesebre y la cruz.”
La verdad es que podemos desear una clase diferente de amor de Dios. Porque el amor de Dios, cuando lo experimentamos, no nos fija mágicamente al mundo en el que vivimos. Por razones que nunca entenderemos completamente, cuando Dios viene a nosotros en Jesús, él prefiere hacer su hogar en nuestros seres vulnerables. Dios no rechaza nuestra vulnerabilidad. Dios también es paciente, y espera que abramos la puerta. Siempre somos libres de decir que no. Como escribe Richard Rohr: “El Amor Divino es tan puro que nunca manipula, avergüenza o se impone a sí mismo sobre nadie. El amor espera ser invitado y deseado, y sólo entonces se apresura a entrar”.
Si te preguntas dónde aparecerá el amor de Dios a continuación para ti, podrías tratar de pensar en lo que está comenzando o terminando en tu vida. Entonces pide la gracia para ver como Dios ve y amar como el amor de Dios. Otro lugar para mirar es donde uno se siente más indigno del amor de Dios y pasa tiempo allí, invitando de nuevo a Jesús a revelarte su presencia allí. Otro lugar para mirar son los ojos de aquellos para quienes el amor llega fácilmente a ustedes, y a los ojos de aquellos que luchan por amar. Mira en el espejo; escucha el sonido de tu propia voz; considera el latido de tu propio corazón y el milagro que es. Luego, recorre con la mirada todo el mundo e imagine la posibilidad de que el amor de Dios se manifieste en lugares marcados por el dolor y el sufrimiento, la maravilla y la alegría.
Al igual que los ángeles, no hay que tener miedo de derramar algunas lágrimas por el dolor y la alegría de todo, la maravilla de la vida y el misterio del amor. Cristo viene a nuestro lugar de lágrimas con los dones más grandes, dados a nosotros desde el corazón de Dios.
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
Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
Zephaniah 3: 19-20
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to him to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were full of expectation, and all questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…”
I’d like to speak to you about a word that is often associated with this season, and that word is joy, as in Joy to the World, the Lord has come. And, as an angel said to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born: Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people. And as we just heard what St. Paul wrote from a prison cell to the Christians of the Greek city of Phillipe, Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice.
Given all that life asks of us and the many challenges we’ve had to face of late, I’d like to explore with you the difference between happiness and joy. They have a lot in common, but they are not the same. Let me illustrate that point with a story.
In late December 1979, the Iranian Foreign Ministry invited three American religious leaders to celebrate Christmas with the 53 hostages being held captive in the American Embassy of Tehran. The hostage crisis had begun on November 4th of that year, and no one had any idea how long it would last. For the hostages and their families, each day was an eternity, and Christmas Day was fast approaching.
The religious leaders were only allowed to meet with the hostages in groups of three or four. The first four that they met with were Marines. The minister who later told this story, William Sloane Coffin, went up and hugged them each one, and they hugged back, which he took as a good sign. He invited the men to take turns picking carols to sing. He opened a Bible to the Gospel of Luke and passed the book around, so that each could read a portion of the Christmas story.
Then Coffin spoke to them of the first Christmas. “It was cold,” he said, “dark, dank, and lonely. Joseph must have been tired, Mary exhausted. We read, ‘There was no room for them in the inn,’ but of course there was. There was room in the inn, but no one would move over for a poor pregnant woman. So Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable and he who was to be the bread of life for all humankind was laid in the feedbox of animals.”
“It was a terrible Christmas,” Coffin said again. “But do you see what I’m getting at? God’s love can change no place into some place, just as the love of God changes a person who feels like a nobody into a somebody.” As he said goodbye, he said, “I know this is not a happy Christmas for you. But it might well be the most meaningful.”
When I consider the distinction between happiness and joy, I’m struck by what Coffin said to the Marines about meaning. Happiness and joy are both emotional states of well being. The difference, I think, is found in what brings meaning to life, and in particular, meaning in the hardest of situations. It’s impossible to imagine the hostages in Iran, or anywhere else in the world, being happy at Christmas. But it isn’t out of the question to think of them being graced by moments of profound meaning and joy, even as their hearts were breaking.
Prior to his trip, William Sloane Coffin met with family members of several hostages. A young girl asked him to deliver a kiss to her father. The kiss, Coffin said, was enough to melt him on the spot. When he met the girl’s father and said, “I’m going to give you a big kiss from your daughter.” Coffin said it was as if the Christmas tree outside the White House turned on in that man’s head. “Never,” he said, “had I seen such illumination.”
Happiness is something we strive for; the pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. It is also subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit. Thomas Jefferson rightly identified the pursuit of happiness as one of the unalienable rights of humankind. Yet there is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience.
Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper in us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. “Happiness,” writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning, yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turns out the way we hoped it would. Joy is a gift that comes to us, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.
The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. The book of the prophet Zephaniah, from which we read this morning, is a good example, for it contains in its succinct three chapters some of the most compelling prophetic judgment against God’s people, a catalog of reasons why God is fully justified in ridding himself of the burden of them once and for all. Yet in these final six verses of Zephaniah, God does one of those great cosmic turn-arounds. Instead of punishment, God offers a promise of healing and reconciliation. “The Lord is not interested in your shame or sorrow,” the prophet tells the people of Israel. “God will lift you up even from the despair of your own creation. God will take you from your desolate places and bring you home.”
This is about joy, in part because the promises are beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish. Moreover, they are promises not yet fulfilled; they are more of a hope than reality. Yet what happens when we hold onto words like these is that the seeds of joy take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. Happiness needs immediate gratification, while the promise of joy is often joy enough.
We hear from John the Baptist this morning, as we do every Advent, and truth be told, I wish we didn’t. I don’t know how you picture John, but he doesn’t strike me as a particularly happy or joyful person. He is on a mission, and for John, life is too short to enjoy. He has a fierce truth to proclaim and a people to prepare for the coming Messiah. I have a hard time imagining anyone being happy with what John said to them when they asked him what they should do. But I can see how what he said could serve as a precursor to joy–not the kind of joy that lives alongside happiness, but the kind that comes with having your soul purged of what it doesn’t need.
To allow space for God in your heart, he said, make peace with what is yours, and share with those who have less than you do. Strive for the kind of freedom that comes from needing less. When the One who is coming after me arrives, all that you imagine you need to be happy will be revealed for the superficial things that they are and burned away like chaff from wheat.
I doubt that John was thinking about joy when he said these things—his interest was righteousness. But long after John died, and after Jesus died for that matter, when those trying to explain the mystery of God’s presence in Christ looked back, they saw in John the kind of truth-telling and fearless living that leads to deep meaning and joy.
John would have harsh words for us if he saw that in our pursuit of happiness we had lost sight of what matters most. He would remind us that sometimes we have to go through pain to get to joy. I wouldn’t dare argue with John. But what I take from his harsh tone in the midst of this Advent season, which always begins in judgment and ends in joy, is a reminder that joy can be experienced while facing difficult truths or living through tough times. Happiness is a fickle friend, the one who shows up, as Buechner said, where you’d expect. But joy can show up anywhere, and in fact, it will show up where we least expect it. John thought God was coming to whip us all into shape, and in that he was wrong. Jesus came, as he said once, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”
Like all of you, I wish happiness for those I love. But this may or not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. “Weeping may spend the night,” the psalmist wrote, “but joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos—it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.