At the beginning of December, we had a snow storm that shut down all of the highways and the interstate in our area. The road conditions were so dangerous that a no-travel warning was issued. The decision was made to cancel worship on the first Sunday of Advent so that everyone would stay safe and off the roads. This left us with the unusual situation of having to decide whether to skip the first theme of Advent or the second. Would we skip over hope and move to week two, or would we stick with week one and skip week two?
Typically we follow a hope-peace-joy-love pattern in Advent. But, this year, we have been following Marcia McFee’s Worship Design Studio outline for Advent, which had love as the theme for week two.
To me, the decision was a no-brainer. We would skip love. You can’t have Advent without hope.
The truth is: Love is the Advent theme I struggle with the most. Hope makes sense to me. We know the world is not as it should be, and the hope of Advent is that the day is coming when all will be made right. Peace makes sense to me. The division, violence, and warring ways of the world make me long for the true peace that passes all understanding. During Advent we cry out to God for peace. Joy? That makes sense to me. Sometimes we need a break from all that longing to celebrate the joy we already have.
But love? I have a harder time with this one.
Since Halloween there has been a relatively steady stream of Hallmark Christmas movies playing in my house. The movies follow a rather predictable series of scenes, with the moment of tension arising as the two main characters are faced with having to decide whose goals and dreams need to be sacrificed in order to make things work. Occasionally both characters give up something major for the budding romance to have a chance, but quite often one character walks away from a major life goal in order to re-settle in a small town where everyone knows everyone and the coffee cups are always empty.
So much of what is marketed to us as love in books and movies is agenda-driven. We give something to get something. Love is about winning the other person over, about giving things up in order to gain what we are really after. And, if Hallmark is to be believed, all of this takes place against the backdrop of a gingerbread house decorating competition.
Is this the love we look to during Advent?
Thomas Merton once wrote this:
“The Child that lies in the manger, helpless and abandoned to the love
of His creatures, dependent entirely upon them to be fed, clothed, and
sustained, remains the Creator and Ruler of the universe… He wills to
be helpless that we may take Him into our care. He has embraced our
poverty…in order to give us his riches.”
The love that Merton envisions is one in which the God of the universe gave up everything so that we could gain everything. Jesus entered into helplessness, was completely dependent on others for his care, and ultimately gave his whole self, not so that he would gain the whole world, but so that we would. The One through whom all had been created gave up everything. Out of love. For us.
With this in my mind, I hear the Christmas story differently: “for born unto you this day in the city of David is a Savior.”
As Dr. Seuss wrote in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,”
It came without ribbons!
It came without tags!
It came without packages,
boxes or bags!
And it came without strings attached.
God gave up everything for us so that we might gain everything.
This is love.
Love has come and never will leave us!
Love is life everlasting and free.
Love is Jesus within and among us.
Love is the peace our hearts are seeking.
Love is the gift of Christmas.
Praise to you, God on high!
-from the hymn “Love Has Come!”
Prayer for lighting the fourth Advent Candle – Love
Jesus Christ, embodiment of God’s love for the world, I look to you. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, I light the candle of love and ask that you open my eyes to the fullness of your love. Your love is the peace my heart is seeking. Amen.