This week’s reflections on the intersection of Love and the Christmas story helps me to understand that humanity will never agree on what love is or the best way to show it. But as Christians, we live in a story where the life and death of Jesus defines what our community means by love and how we are going to live it out in our world. And the Christmas story in particular helps me to see two important things about love (this post is part one):
Love Happens Between Equals: I am discomforted by the fact that the way God loved us was to become like us. That is to say, in the Old Testament God loved his people by giving them Manna to eat, water from a rock to drink, a land flowing with milk and honey. But the New Testament calls all of those things “shadows” and “incomplete.” The Incarnation shows that God didn’t think the answer to our biggest questions was material. Apparently what lower-class humanity needed was not just a charity check from an upper-class God. The pinnacle of love was that God decided to be “with” us (Emmanuel). The pinnacle of love, the coming of Jesus, doesn’t happen “to” people, or “for” people, but “with” people. Love, according to the story of Jesus, is a story of “with,” not “to” or “for.”
First, the “with” of the Incarnation shows me that love excludes power-plays. God could not love us fully “as God.” He had to “empty himself” of his “godness” to “become like us” (Phil 2). When I do things “to” you or “for” you, I remain the upper hand. I stay in the safety of my own identity and my own social/economic status. This “love from afar” has a high chance of being patronizing. This “love from afar” condescendingly says “I know what you need even though I know very little about you” (e.g. most “evangelism”).
This “with” also excludes my feelings of self-righteousness as I “help” those “lower” than me. This “lower” can be “the poor,” “annoying” “socially inept” “immigrant” or any other group we consider “below” us. The “with” of the Incarnation uncomfortably blurs the lines between “us” and “them.” When we do things for the poor, there is still a thick line between us and them. We (who have much) are giving to them (those who have little). But once I give “them” myself, once we become friends, then that line gets blurry. I start to become one of “them.” That’s when my identity and my relationships get messy.
But if the perfect God becoming an imperfect human says anything about love, it says that it is indeed messy.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable part is that if love happens in the “with” and not the “to” or “for,” the Incarnation forces me to recognize that what people need from me most is my friendship, a space to belong. Now, people do need material things. But in our unwillingness to follow the example of the Christmas story, we get the order wrong. We think “loving our neighbor” means sending a check to “those” poor people or “those” down on their luck or giving presents to the socially awkward. But the Incarnation says that when we risk the “with,” when we risk being associated with “those” people, everyone’s needs are met. The giving of material possessions happens most robustly and profoundly as a result of friendship and equality, not as a cheap substitute.
May 2012 be a year where I admit that I do not love very many people in my life and may I recognize that love begins with “giving myself,” not “giving my stuff.”