There are times when I scorn English for not having a wide enough variety of words for the many concepts bundled into the word love. Maybe it used to. Older translations of the Bible give us charity where it means “care for one’s neighbor.” Christians, especially those of a scholarly persuasion, like to refer to Greek’s multitude of words for the different concepts of love: eros for romantic love, agape for unconditional/divine love, storge for familial love, etc. Modern English, however, has just the one word with countless meanings, covering everything from intense emotional bonding to simple preference (e.g., “I love pizza,” to which I say, same).
But I’m not here to discuss the linguistic shortcomings of one word of my native language, as much as I enjoy words and the study of them. I’m here for an abstract concept that is so difficult to puzzle through: Advent is about love.
And before you think I’m about to make a hard left turn directly into Hallmark movie territory, let’s think about this.
John 3:16 tells us “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s an easy verse to skip over. It’s so well-known among churchy folks that we tend to just zone out. “Yep, I know this one, moving on.” But do we know it? Do we get it?
Do we recognize that God’s love for the world is an active choice on his part? When Adam and Eve chose Satan’s fake promises over God’s real ones, God could have said “Screw it, this was a mistake. You’re on your own.” Even when he destroys everything but Noah and the contents of the ark, he chooses not to let humanity wander off with no hope of restoration. “For God so loved” is an active decision. It is not some passive squishy feeling, some vague sense of fondness. “For God so loved” does not represent anything we did, only the active, engaged choice of a good God.
This is the first way that Advent is about love: this divine rescue mission, where the only SEAL team that will suffice is God himself, given human form in Jesus Christ. The second way is in how God so graciously allowed the very humans he was en route to rescue to participate in the story.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
The fourth Sunday in Advent focuses on the Annunciation. We know it well from Luke 1: Gabriel appears in little Nazareth and walks into Mary’s living room, and human history changes forever. I could spend all day talking about Mary’s beautiful responses, how she is the prime example of godly womanhood, and on and on. But let’s stop for a second and think about this:
God oversaw and orchestrated all of history to get the right place, the right time, and the right woman.
Everything from Adam and Eve’s failure was caused or allowed to happen so that Mary would be the one. There’s no indication in Luke that God sorted through a Rolodex of candidates. Just, boom, directly to Mary’s house, right on cue. “You have found favor with God.” Not earned favor. Not deserved favor. Found it. A gift given freely, asking her “Will you be a part of this?”
He asks us the same thing, though maybe not as impressively as an archangel showing up on our doorstep. When we get opportunities as believers to extend hospitality to the lonely and forgotten, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to warm the cold, to heal the sick, these are gifts from God, opportunities to participate with him in the birth of grace in this world–opportunities he is under no obligation to give us, except that because he chooses to love us, he wants us to choose to love others.
What a thing to ask of Mary, we think. And indeed, what a thing. “This is a big deal and a big job. Will you do it? Are you willing?”
God, in his goodness and wonderful wisdom, found the ideal candidate, because he formed her from the beginning. He knew she would be the mother of Christ, yet he still stopped to ask her, “Will you do this?” And out of what must be the purest love for her creator, Mary says “Absolutely.” She doesn’t know what it will entail. She knows it’ll be scary, will probably ruin her social standing. But God is worth it.
And speaking of love, we can’t leave out Joseph. I 100% believe he loved Mary–maybe not in a squishy romance-movie kind of way, but in the selfless way Ephesians 5:25 commands of men. He was preparing to take her into his home, to protect and care for her, when this bombshell drops, but instead of doing the “right” thing and throwing her under the bus, Matthew 1:18-25 tells us he planned to be discreet so as not to hurt her too much. Yet when the angel drops by to say “Hey, it’s all good, this is God on the move,” Joseph jumps right back into protecting and caring for the baby Christ, undoubtedly tossing his entire reputation out the window in the process.
Matthew tells us Joseph was a righteous man–upstanding in his community and a faithful adherent of Levitical law. We can assume Mary would likewise be called a righteous woman. God asks these two upstanding people who have the world before them, getting ready to grow their community by creating their own family, to throw it all away. And they do. Because they love God with heart, soul, and mind. And because they love God, they also love each other enough to stick together to do his will.
It didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t. It’s confusing and almost seems sloppy. After all, God has the power to just beam Christ down from heaven in his full royal glory. But we know God never does anything (or lets anything occur) without a purpose. Would we have paid attention if Jesus had showed up like he does in Revelation, on a white horse with crowns, plural? Nah. I wouldn’t have. There’s nothing to relate to in a god you’ve never seen before showing up like, well, a god. But a God who says “Hey, I’m on my way to live like you, to redeem your brokenness, to show you the path home”? That’s show-stopping. It’s easy to write off powerful people. But Miryam and Yosef’s kid? He’s doing miracles? He’s… God? Why?
Why, indeed. For God so loved the world. He chose the hard route to demonstrate his goodness and mercy. He picked the messy route, involving fallible mortals, to show us the road to come home. He came to our level to get us because we’d never make it otherwise. (I don’t know about you, but I screw up and sin so much. Every day. All the time. But God is good to offer me salvation and to develop me in Christ’s model every single day.)
Advent–and by extension, Christmas–is about love: the love of God, unmerited by us mortals, entirely merited by Christ but shared with us. When we respond to this love and accept Christ as our road home, that’s when we start building hope, faith, peace… and love. Through his mercy and kindness, he makes us conduits for his love into the world, even through simple things like feeding the hungry and comforting the distressed. Christ tells us that when we do things like this, we are doing it for him.
Advent shows us that the overpowering love of God must be met with repentance and belief, and our further response to receiving love is to give it. The world needs love, but not in the ways it thinks it does. It needs open displays of the love of God, which is so foreign to how mortal love and reciprocation works that it can only provoke a question of “Why do you do this?”
Because God so loved the world.
Per aspera ad astra,
PS: God is so good to even tell us his plan in the names of the main players. Mary (Miryam) means “their rebellion.” Joseph (Yosef) means “God will add another son.” Because of our rebellion, God adds another (even the ultimate, the only) Son. And the name of this Son? Jesus (Yehowshuwa), meaning “God is salvation.” DIVINE MIC DROP.