The traditional theme for the fourth week of Advent is ‘love’.
I’m wondering whether ‘love’ may be one of the most confusing words in the English language. I love my wife. I love my children and my Grandson. All ok so far. I love sitting on a beach watching a beautiful sunset and the view from the top of the hill down the road. That all makes sense. I love my apartment and I love the Christmas decorations in the town Square. These are all valid uses of the verb ‘to love’ in contemporary usage in the UK. I love paella or my wife’s cheese pie (she makes a very good cheese pie). You might love your car or your phone. But now there’s a hint of a problem. My love for my wife (we have been together since we were teens) is surely very different from your love of your iPhone? Can we really be talking about the same thing?
But of course as native English speakers our culture resolves the problem, because we all know what we mean. We can see a difference. We’ve sort of learned a scale – a continuum if you like – which allows us to use the same word in many different situations and mean something similar, but not the same. That sense of continuum helps us to understand what each other means. It’s as if we sub consciously pick up the word love, look at it in the context of our conversation, and get a good idea what we mean. Most of the time, we get it right.
You see, I can use the word love when I mean like. I can use the word love when I mean sex. It can mean affection. It can mean passion. I can use the word love sarcastically (I love Donald Trump) (spoiler alert – I don’t). I use the word carefully in social media messages (that’s my culture), although younger people than me will use it much more freely (that’s theirs).
In the Christmas story we see the love of a mother for a newborn child. We recognise in a heartbeat that the love of a mother for their new born child is a world apart from my affection for my wife’s cheese pie or your experience of an iPhone. It’s not the same thing at all. That kind of parental, especially maternal love is just about the top end of our continuum. It’s deep. It’s selfless. It’s passionate. It’s profound. The fact that Mary is in some sense a refugee, and the birth takes place in the most difficult of circumstances, adds depth, poignancy and richness to the love narrative. This is a story of really deep love.
But what if our understanding of the word love is incomplete. What if that continuum, which we think we’ve got sussed, goes much, much further than we ever knew or imagined. The idea isn’t as crazy as it might look. If you’ve been fortunate to experience a really good and fulfilling relationship, you’ll know that you can suddenly discover new depths of love that you never knew were there. You’d simply never experienced them before. It’s awesome. Your mind is blown.
What if there are levels of love beyond our experience or understanding? What if there are depths of love which go further than our culture can explain, or our minds can explain. What if the fact of this birth was itself an expression of love far greater than the unquestioned love which Mary felt for the baby?
What if there is a God sized love which is indescribably profound and yet somehow expressed in the birth of a small boy in a backwater of Bethlehem on a winters night. A love which goes far beyond our experience and the constraints of our culture. The kind of love which would break through the boundaries of our worldly perceptions and cause legions of angels to visibly sing praises to God and blow the minds of shepherds and wise men alike.
Pick up your concept of love, look at the context of the Christmas story, and recognise that there is something here more powerful and profound than you have ever noticed before. Just imagine. A love even deeper. Even more selfless. Even more passionate. Even more profound.
In the Christmas story, Jesus is called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us. A God of love, whose love is for you.