Christians quickly (and correctly) claim that love defines their religion, but the reality, as we know, often fails the ideal. A history of unloving Christian behavior, itself a testimony to the power of sin, would fill volumes. Unfortunately, Christians often use love to “one-up” non-Christians. How often have unthinking Christians “praised” a generous, loving Jew as an example of “Christian” charity? Christians may forget that the love commandments, to love God and love neighbor, come from the Hebrew Bible, which says “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18).
As ironic and occasionally humorous as these persistent paradoxes may be, they pale before the crisis of love in the contemporary world. The word “love” turns us toward romantic, sentimental feelings associated with sexual attraction, emotional intimacy and the satisfaction of our needs for warmth, acceptance and security. At its worst in our culture, love is an infatuation that, contrary to Paul (1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient and kind…Love bears all things…endures all things…”), is selfish, impatient, envious and temporary. Our human needs and unpredictable feelings impede or exclude the robust, deep integral gift of self to one another and the commitment to God demanded by Scripture.
December is the worst month for Christian love. The strain of shopping for Christmas, the rush of decorating, the volume of gifts and the obligatory sentiments of good will conspire to smother deeper bonds of family and community. Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, people seek respite from the very holiday meant to console and strengthen them and must search for meaningful relationships beneath all the frivolous glitter and emotion.
What is love then? Better, what does love do? I remember a sign from my youth that said “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.” A spiritual writer, Rosemary Haughton, made the same point when she said some years ago that real love is effective. Surprisingly, the Letter of James, often maligned as superficial because it stresses works and behavior rather than faith alone, best articulates a hardheaded view of love in Christian life: God has promised the kingdom to those who love him; the guide to love is the “royal law,” that is, the law of God’s kingdom; the law of the kingdom is love of neighbor; and most trenchantly, neighbors include the poor, to whom followers of Jesus must show mercy (James 2:1–13). To put it another way, those who look down on the poor or give the rich special treatment have failed to keep the law of love. In the Letter of James, love is much more than pious feelings and good behavior. Love persists, endures temptation and stands up under tests; love mobilizes the will, mind and whole person in a response to God and the needs of fellow humans. Effective love cares for the needy and the socially marginal, or it is not love at all.
James’s view of love pervades the “Christmas stories” in the Gospels, no matter how they have been debased in contemporary culture. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary praises God in her hymn of praise (the Magnificat) for favoring the lowly and caring for the hungry (Luke 1:46–55). God brings down the powerful and rich because they do not care for the poor. Mary, one of the poor, gives birth to Jesus among domestic animals and uses a manger for a crib. God, who favors the poor, calls shepherds from the lower classes of society to witness Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8–20). God’s love for Israel is effective. God sends a savior who is proclaimed in the hymns of praise by Zechariah (Luke 1:67–79), Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25–38). God loves his people, and his people respond to God in kind.
The other side of love, its strength, persistence and endurance, emerges forcefully in the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1–2). God sends a savior (Matthew 1:21) who is the king of Israel (Matthew 2:2). In Herod’s kingdom this claim plunges Jesus and his family into mortal danger. God cares for Jesus, Joseph and Mary by warning them to escape to Egypt from Herod’s murderous assault and by guiding them eventually back to Galilee (Matthew 2). Jesus’ “Christmas” is far from carefree and joyous, and it is no time for toys and games. The magi acknowledge Jesus’ kingship over Israel amid plot and counterplot and then evade Herod’s conspiracy (Matthew 2:10–12). Jesus’ family escapes by night before Herod’s troops slaughter children in Bethlehem. Love of God and love of neighbor require courage in the face of danger, endurance of hardship and continual dislocation. The real Christmas story does not involve going home to a warm house filled with memories of childhood, gifts and intimate feelings. The “celebrants” of the first Christmas loved God and each other by enduring poverty and danger.
Love of God and neighbor is effective. Love includes, and faces squarely, the pain and needs of all humans. As the First Letter of John asks acerbically, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17). This goes for love at Christmas, too. The test of Christmas love, and of any Christian love, is the needs of others: family, friends and fellow citizens, of course, but also strangers, foreigners and enemies. As the Letter of James asks rhetorically, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). Christmas celebrates the coming of the king into his kingdom, his real kingdom of sturdy love that overcomes all obstacles in its faithfulness to God and care for fellow humans.
Christians quickly (and correctly) claim that love defines their religion, but the reality, as we know, often fails the ideal. A history of unloving Christian behavior, itself a testimony to the power of sin, would fill volumes. Unfortunately, Christians often use love to “one-up” non-Christians. How often have unthinking Christians “praised” a generous, loving Jew as an example of “Christian” charity? Christians may forget that the love commandments, to love God and love neighbor, come from the Hebrew Bible, which says “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God […]