“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this, all will know that you are MY disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I don’t know about you, but personally I have always loved Jesus and Christmas since my first memory of either. However, as I matured, this simple wonder and awe turned into a massive to-do list of all the myriad things Better Homes and Gardens, TV commercials, neighbors, and the social calendar taught us to do from Thanksgiving to Christmas in order to celebrate and to host the perfect Christmas, leaving us all overloaded, overcommitted, overwhelmed, overtired, overstuffed, and overspent in every way, often arriving at the doorstep of the New Year empty of the true meaning of Christmas and devoid of much, if any, peace, joy, and love. After all the presents were opened, what we really were seeking — that’s at the very heart of Christmas, but we may have never fully given or received – is the presence of God on earth, peace and good will to all, and being more present to the Christ within ourselves and everyone.
As I write, I am appalled at how much I had unwittingly bought into the commercialized Christmas, all in the hopes of keeping the love alive I felt as a child at the foot of my mother reading Scripture in front of the rough-hewn little manger lit by one yellow bulb, and a row of advent candles next to a tree of lights. How did the light of the world fade into the background in my HUGE effort to do Christmas right? How did I get so busy that I had inadvertently squeezed out Jesus and His hands on, full-out love for others in my attempt to “show” and “do” Christmas justice according to some other words and ways than those of Jesus? How did I become a mad Martha in the kitchen while a quiet, adoring Mary sat alone with Jesus in another quieter room, just sitting at His feet, being present to Him, rather than racing around buying presents while becoming totally un-present to myself and others and the real Christmas seeking to find room in me.
At the core, much of the secular Christmas hustle and bustle can be motivated by an attempt to show love for God, Sweet Jesus, and to others. However, it is overwound and over-materialized as our Advent study, Christmas is not your Birthday by Rev. Slaughter, so aptly points out. Our priorities of time, talent and treasures have become misplaced. As Einstein said, “We cannot keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.” So how are we to decontaminate, declutter, and refocus Christmas to really be Jesus’ birthday and the annual rebirth of Jesus’ love in our hearts and lives?
In my work and life, I have come to know the 12 steps to be a divinely inspired, practical method of life transformation and personal redemption for millions. The program is full of practical living tips and one-liners. KISS is one of them: Keep It Simple, Stupid. In the midst of trying to do Christmas right like a Church on Caffeine and Santa’s Workshop on Steroids, my use of time and money had been mistaken even though I believed my motivations were love for God, Jesus, Christmas, life, family, and others. Now, I feel “kissed” by the simple brilliance and practical meaning of what Jesus said and did, as in today’s scripture. Jesus made it very clear and very simple why he was born and what the real meaning of Christmas is: Immanuel-God come down to earth to live among us and within us, and to LOVE ONE ANOTHER! This is so central, so essential, so core, and really the purpose and message of His whole life and ministry, so true and important that He repeated it three times in this two-verse passage!
Loving one another is THE gift Jesus asks us to give Him, and to each other. THIS is how we express our appreciation for the birth and life of Christ and show, even prove, that we are disciples, believers or followers of His way, not ours, TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER. In this verse, it is not the familiar and also true command to “love your neighbor as yourself”. It is “love one another AS I HAVE LOVED YOU!” This is a much more reliable and higher standard of loving, because we all know that we don’t always love ourselves in body, mind, emotions, or spirit as if we were made in the image and likeness of God and as if we housed the Kingdom of Heaven within our body temple. Furthermore, the word neighbor can be misunderstood to only include those nearby, in our tribe or family circle, or ones familiar to us and easier to love because they look, think, act, and vote more like us. We are questioned in Scripture “So what honor is it to love those who love you”? Admittedly, that is easy and most anyone can achieve that kind of love. Love gets challenging, often seemingly impossible, to love as Jesus loves when we are asked to love our enemies, to forgive 70×7, and to seek out the one with whom we have a problem and work toward reconciliation before we come to the religious feast to celebrate….even Christmas perhaps.
We are commanded by Jesus’ words and radical examples of living out love to LOVE the least, the lost, the lonely, the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the “non-believers,” the idolaters, the captors, the enslaved, the profligates, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the mourners, the orphaned, the widowed, the disabled, the stranger, the imprisoned, the tax collectors, government leaders, the prostitute, and the Judas’s in our lives —those who wrongfully judge, persecute, torture, and condemn us. Truly, we can ask what Scripture poses to us, “What manner of love has God for us?” It models a love so extreme and unlike our usual type of human love. It’s the kind of love that will leave the 99 and seek the one. It’s an extreme love that is even willing to die for us.
As Wesley urged: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” This is loving one another as Jesus loved. Jesus says that when we show love to the least, we are actually doing it to and for him. Christmas IS Jesus’ birthday, not mine or yours, so our gifts ultimately should be in honor of Him in ways and to whom he would want. Christmas should be and can be the birth of love shown to others who need the life changing touch and warmth of our love in action.
Questions for me/for us all? How can we hear the pressure-laden, perennial secular question of the season, “Are you ready for Christmas yet?” in a new, more profound way? Where can you/I love where we have never loved before? Whom can you/I love whom we have not shown love to before? What person(s) or group seems unlovable to you/me that Jesus commands us to love in spite of our beliefs or past experiences? Whom can you/I forgive so love can replace resentment or fear? Is there anyone Jesus did not love? Did Jesus really show such radical love that he died for everyone? How can we approach that kind dying to self and loving as Christ has loved everyone this Christmas and into 2014 on?
Prayer: Since “All things are possible through Christ who strengthens me,” may we really “get it right” and “do Christmas right” by truly embodying Jesus’s commands to love God with all we’ve got – our heart, soul, strength, and mind – and likewise give all we have in order to love one another as He first Loved Us. Amen.
Song: What the World Needs Now Is Love (Dionne Warwick)