Christmas: The Call and Response of Love
Christmas carols help us to remember the most important thing about Christmas: God entered into human history to save us from sin. In almost every song, we are called to rejoice because God has acted. “Christ our Savior is born.” “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!” “It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” Unfortunately, few of our songs recognize Christmas as an initiative of Divine Love calling for a response. St. Paul referenced Christmas to Titus saying, “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared” and Isaiah foretold it as a love story: “the LORD delights in you… and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”
Love requires a response. An early Christian story related to Christmas tells us that Lucifer, the greatest of the angels, was given a vision of God’s plan of salvation, including the Incarnation. God’s requirement that Lucifer bow down and serve a human Christ–“Let all the angels of God worship him”—was too much for the prideful angel. Faced with God’s will, satan asserted his own judgment as superior to God’s. His protest damned him forever: “I will not serve.”
Compare this to Mary’s reception of the same Divine plan. With utter humility, she declared herself to be “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) and immediately went to visit her elder cousin who was pregnant and would need her care. There, she humbly received Elizabeth’s greeting by saying, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He has looked with favor on his handmaid’s lowliness…” (Luke 1:46-48). Although God’s plan made little sense to her (and, I suggest, would not really make sense until the Resurrection), she considered God’s will superior to her own. In diametric contrast to satan’s selfishness and supposed superiority to God, Mary expressed only humble acceptance of God’s inscrutable will. In this way, she alone is the perfect model of accepting Christ. She is the one we must imitate whenever we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
This is the call and response of Christmas. St. Ignatius of Loyola taught us that the choice is binary; we must stand behind the standard of Christ or the standard of satan. Such was his warrior imagery for the spiritual life. I prefer to think of it as a love story; and like every gesture of love, like every wooing and courting, like every flirtation and invitation, God’s expression of love in the Incarnation of Christ demands (not only wonder, awe, and praise, but also) a decisive response.
What is this love that is offered? It is nothing less than the self-emptying of God, inasmuch as possible, to give Godself to us for our sake. Love, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is “willing the good of the other for the sake of the other.” “God is love” according to St. John (1 John 4:8). Thus, we find the only pure and perfect expression of love in the Divine self-giving manifest especially in the Incarnation. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'” In Christ, God gave up the glory and the power of heaven, so to speak, in order to be born in an animal’s feeding trough, completely helpless. For love of us, he accepted a messy life in the flesh, becoming a baby, cold and crying, pooping and peeing, burping and drooling and spitting up. The devil could not bring himself to love this, would not worship this, would not serve this human mess. Mary, on the other hand, embraced the child with a mother’s love. He was dependent on Mary and Joseph, and the people around him, for all of his bodily needs, and even to grow in “wisdom and age and grace” (Luke 2:52, DRA). This is what the early Christians marveled at when they sang, “He… did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself… coming in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7).
Most especially, God, who is Love Itself, became needy for love. As a baby, Jesus needed what every baby needs from the womb until death—the felt love of a mother, a father, a family, a human community. Jesus—Love in the flesh—needed the response of love. Mary, whose humble acceptance of God’s will was a “yes” to the Divine Initiative of Love, becomes our first and finest example of how to live out that “yes.” Since God has brought humanity into the very life of the Trinity, we must embrace every human, especially the most vulnerable, as Mary embraced Christ. This is why Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me… whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35,40).
As we sing our Christmas carols this year, I hope we will continue to marvel at the “wonders of His love!” But I hope we will also remember that love demands a response. The Christ child in the manger confronts us with a decisive invitation from God to enter into Divine Life even as God has entered into human life. We have only two choices. With satan, we could say, “I will not serve” by rejecting the needs of those among us who are the face of Christ today, and asserting our own will as if superior to God’s. Or, like Mary, we could say, “Be it done unto me according to Thy word,” and then get up and visit the Elizabeths in our life who are in need of our care.
Merry Christmas, everyone! I am already rejoicing not only in God’s act of love, manifest in the Christ Child asleep in Mary’s arms, but also in your wonderful and ongoing response to that Love.