Love. Peace. Hope. Joy. We will see these words a lot in the next four weeks—in scrawling fonts, in red green, silver, and gold, adorning Christmas cards and advertisements and invitations. Because they are commonplace, and because they are tossed into the mix of beaming family photos and lists of items we want at the mall and parties with champagne and poinsettias and eggnog, it would be easy to think of these words as trite, sentimental, sweet.
But according to the church calendar, there is nothing trite, sentimental, or sweet about this time of year. Rather, Advent—the four weeks leading up to Christmas—is a time of expectation. Not so much the eager expectation that our children demonstrate every morning when they want to revise their gift list. Not so much the expectation of food and family and celebration. Advent is a time of sorrowful expectation, of daring to hope that Immanuel, God-with-us, the one the Scriptures talk about, the one who came in the flesh on Christmas morning, is still working to make things right in this world.
The church’s understanding of Advent stands in opposition to our culture’s run-up to Christmas. Instead of parties, Advent invites reflection on injustice. Instead of wreaths and greenery, it invites us to cry out to God because of the pain in our lives and in our communities. Instead of pop tunes about Santa Claus, it includes hymns with words that talk about us mourning “in somber exile” and needing release from our “sins and fears.”
It is in this context that I want to turn my attention to love, peace, hope, and joy. In the context of a world with starving children and slavery and mental illness and disease and war and despair, let’s talk about peace. In the context of a nation with animosity and distrust and division, let’s talk about hope. In the context of a local community with overdose deaths and divorce and alcoholism and sexual assault, let’s talk about joy. In the context of a family with kids who yell at each other and parents who are distracted and tempted to ignore the pain in the world and the pain in our own souls, let’s talk about love.
Over the next four weeks, as we move through Advent, I will be offering some thoughts on these four words, beginning with love. The Bible has a lot to say about love, but three things stand out to me: Love waits, Love hates, and Love costs.
Love waits. Love is patient, writes the Apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 13. God doesn’t rush in to change our circumstances when He is inviting a change of heart. God will wait and wait and wait for us to recognize ourselves as His beloved ones. God will wait and wait and wait for us to turn to Him, to turn away from the things in our lives that keep us from Him. This doesn’t mean God’s love isn’t active. Rather, God’s love is patient in that He will offer it to us again and again, no matter how much we refuse it. In Advent, we are invited to join in God’s patient love by reaching out to those who have wounded us in the past, by giving ourselves to those who do not reciprocate, and by caring for those who have not cared for us. In Advent, we are called to remember that this is how God has loved us.
Love hates. I know it sounds contradictory, but God hates injustice. God hates the suffering experienced as a result of corruption and self-centeredness. God hates the deceptions that keep us from understanding His love for us. In Advent, we are invited to cry out against injustice, to use whatever power we have—time, money, words, relationships—to protest the oppression of the most vulnerable among us. In Advent, we are called to remember that this is how God has loved us.
Love costs. Every act of love is an act of self-sacrifice. I sacrifice my sleep for my kids when I get up in the night to soothe them after a bad dream. My husband sacrifices personal ambition when he comes home from work to eat dinner with the family instead of crossing off a few more items on the to do list. Women and men in the armed services sacrifice their bodies to defend our nation. An employer who loves his employees sacrifices a bigger paycheck in order to share the profits. In Advent, we are invited to recognize God’s sacrificial love for us even as we are called to love others with that same kind of sacrifice.
If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking that you’d prefer sentimental love to this kind of sacrifice. The holiday season offers plenty of opportunities to ignore pain through parties and money and happy photos on Facebook. But the promise of Christmas is that when we take the time to recognize the ugly parts of our souls and of the world around us, when we take the time to engage in the pain and respond to it, when we pay attention to the depth and width and breadth of God’s loving response to that ugliness and pain, it will transform us.
Love will make us into people who don’t need to ignore pain and suffering but instead can respond to it with healing and grace. Like the baby who came into the world over 2,000 years ago.