Fourth Sunday of Advent: Love

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
-Philippians 2:1-8

The final Sunday of Advent is historically linked to the idea of love. Of God's love for us, and of our calling to love the world. Yet advent is not simply an occasion to reflect on love. It actually teaches us what love looks like.

There is this moment at the beginning of the novel The Brothers Karamazov where a wealthy woman goes to see a great monk. She tells him that she has this overwhelming love of humanity and compassio for the poor. It agonizes her heart. It keeps her up at night. Which is a problem, because when she actually goes to help the poor she finds them dirty and disagreeable. They lie to her and try to rob her. So she flees back to her mansion, unable to act out this love for the poor because of how unlovable they actually are.

The monk comments to her, simply and astutely, that it is easy to love mankind in general but quite another matter to love men in particular.

We often confuse love with empathy or tender-heartedness. We view it as a state of the heart, a set of emotions we feel when we think about people. All of these things can accompany love. They do not, however, define it.

Love in Scripture is always particular. It doesn't dwell in the realm of abstractions. It isn't some feeling of goodwill. Jesus did not come in a general sense to the world; He came as a particular person to a certain couple, laid in a historical manger and greeted by specific shepherds and sages. If you had been there, you could have learned the actors' names and felt the splinters in the wood. Jesus could only show love by having a single human body and showing it to individual humans He encountered.

Because of this particularity, love is also costly. God could have stayed in heaven and felt sentimental. He could have stayed in heaven and sympathized with our plight. It was only by humbling himself, however, that actual human beings could be saved.

There is, of course, something unique about what Jesus does. We are not in very nature God, and so we cannot become incarnate as Christ did. Having a body was for God a humiliation; for us, it is a great dignity. Besides which, we cannot of course die to atone for the sins of the world.

Yet while Christ's love is something beyond our love, it still provides the shape we are called to follow. “Have this mind among yourselves,” Paul says, “Which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5) If Christmas shows us God's love for us, it also provides the form within which we understand love for others.

Our love must always be particular. We cannot think we love humanity without first being beside them, and beside them at their worst. I cannot claim to love my wife if it doesn't include those moments when she is angry with me, or tired, or slumped over the toilet puking from illness. I cannot claim to love the poor if it doesn't include knowing their faces, putting my arms around their shoulders, or watching them squander my charity on what I consider folly. I cannot claim to love the world if I don't get off my high horse and dig my hands into the dirt and manure.

This particularity, as we said, comes with a cost. As fulfilling as we might find the work of love, we will also find it exhausting. Those who have the mind of Christ will be at times harried, haggard, and even taken advantage of.

Yet the solution is to recognize that this love isn't something we conjure up for ourselves. It flows from the particular, costly love Jesus shows for us. We are to have this mind “that is ours in Christ Jesus.” He has paid our price. He has known our names. He has humbled Himself from a heavenly throne to dwell in our dirty homes and hearts. It is in the experience of this love that we are both called and enabled to go and do likewise.

God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
- Madeleine L’Engle, First Coming