Today marks the 3rd Sunday of Advent where we light the candle of LOVE. Over the last two weeks, as we’ve followed the Magi in their journey to Bethlehem, we’ve lit the candles of HOPE and of JOY, and we’ll will be lighting the next two of LOVE and PEACE today and next Sunday. Each interrelates & interconnects somehow to produce the whole light of our faith. In the lighting of the first candle we were acknowledging a HOPE in Christ which is so much beyond even the worst of our losses, our griefs and despairs, and that’s especially helpful to remember as we go through the loss of SO much during the isolating effects of this awful Covid pandemic. Last week we acknowledged the JOY that such a Christ-hope always releases! If the HOPE-light of Christ is about our anticipation of Christ’s birth into our lives the JOY-light of Christ is about what it produces within us! This Sunday marks the start of the 3rd week of Advent, and we are lighting the candle of LOVE. As we do so, together, MAY THE LOVE OF CHRIST BE WITH YOU!
The light that reveals Jesus as LOVE empowers us to be part of all of what God reveals in Christ at Christmas. LOVE! There are however SO many definitions of this much-used word. I remember someone suggesting that we need to produce a dictionary as we speak of it – just so that we can be clear. What we are NOT referring to here are the ideas of love as merely loyalty, friendship or even romance (as distinguished by the Greek words storge, fileo and eros) but as AGAPE. This describes love as an utterly ‘outwards/kenotic/self-emptying’ phenomenon which is always totally for the ‘other!’ We see this most perfectly revealed to us, from God, in Jesus Christ. Catherine de Hueck Doherty[i]wrote: the immense problems of war, social justice, of the thousand and one ills that beset or world, can be solved only if we begin to love one another. When people begin to see, love, respect, and reverence Christ in the eyes of another, then they will change and society will change also.
Richard Rohr[ii] reminds us how we were once so very much better at knowing and being this than we are now. In the first 300 years of Christianity Christ-followers understood that they were a community created to move to a very different rhythm than the rest of society. They understood how the God-breathed love of Christ had formed them into a body that placed just, merciful service above all else …and they held on to that in the face of even some of the worst persecution the then in-power Roman authorities could throw at them. They understood that if they were faithfully to reflect the nature of the Living God they needed to be a counter-cultural force of healing and forgivenessin a world that didn’t know too much about that. Non-violence, love, and forgiveness of enemies made absolutely no sense to the rest of the world, but every sense in them who lived by the way of Christ’s cross and resurrection.
But all that changed in 313AD with the Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity.
He contaminated the faith – effectively corrupting it – by associating it with all of his imperial power and privilege. Instead of being purely the Channel of Christ’s peace that it was meant to be, it became sullied/polluted by this man-made ability to dominate and control, manipulating others to its own largely self-serving agenda! And along with the good the church has been, that sullied agenda has remained with us for millennia.
Of course there have always been movements within us straining to bring us back to what we once were: St Anthony and the early desert fathers, or the monastic movements of the early middle ages & the rise of Celtic Christianity, and all through to today.
But still, there it is. Probably one of the most evil results of this corruption was the 1493 Papal Bull leading to the Doctrine of Discovery. It deemed all of creation open to Christendom’s domination, and that so at virtually any cost! However well we may try to disguise these elements of proselytising domination power in our lives, it is still only as we confess them, repenting, let them go, that we are able once again to align ourselves with God’s most Christmas work – God’s most Christian, Jesus work – which is what LOVE – AGAPE LOVE – is all about!
Brian McLaren[iii] shares how he believes that this is always how the Holy Spirit of God works. It’s been like that from the time of Moses who was anointed by God to lead a nation to freedom from their enslaved oppression. It was what fired the liberating dreams of the prophets who were given to offer God’s people the hope of a different way of living…
We still hear their words longing for there to come a time of justice when swords and spears, instruments of death, would be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks, instruments of aliveness[iv] That’s just where we meet John the Baptist of today’s reading who was also given to dare challenge the oppressive power dynamics of his day by pointing us to this whole other, better, way of living.
It is not meant to be like this! We are not meant to live like this! We have to stop! It’s destroying us! We have to stop hurting ourselves with our greed and self-preserving power obsessions! There is a better way to live …a radically restored social justice/a God’s-Kingdom-coming-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven way! And as Jesus arrives, so John erupted: “THERE HE IS! HE IS THE ONE!” John immediately recognized that in Jesus Christ God was demonstrating EXACTLY for what we are made! THIS is what and how all of creation has always been intended to be. Here is AGAPE personified: poured-out love obsessed ONLY with the generous good of the other!
In his own words, Brian McLaren[v] explains: Under Jesus’ leadership, this new movement grew and expanded in unprecedented ways. . . . It rose again through a new generation of leaders like James, Peter, John, and Paul, – all who were full of the AGAPE Spirit of Jesus. They created learning circles in which activists were trained to extend the movement locally, regionally, and globally. Wherever activists in this movement went, the Spirit of Jesus was alive in them, fomenting change and inspiring true aliveness… It claimed that everyone had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege, and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and peaceable neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not just to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.
It still is – and we still are!
As so-called Mainline Christians living these past centuries within the hugely privileged structures of our Western world: the best of our faith’s teaching and preaching has always somehow been about calling us to come back to the model of sacred AGAPE-LOVE that God created us to be in God’s image. I wonder to what extent God isn’t currently using all of our COVID pandemic-closed- sanctuaries somehow to bring us back to that?
This is what Christ’s Christmas LOVE-CANDLE light would restore within us! It’s for what we were made! It’s for us. Through us it’s for others! And it’s for now. I love how someone once put it, that if we truly want to see a world pulsing with a love like that in the future, WE need to embrace that AGAPE-LOVE difference in our living now, today.
And so, back to our Advent wreath! We come alive with anticipation as we light the candle of HOPE. We begin to feel its stirring deep within as the light of JOY-CANDLE begins to warm our souls… And then it’s the AGAPE-LOVE-flame of Christ that compels us out to manifest God’s character and purposes in the world. Of course we see struggle and suffering all around us, but that’s not what most motivates us to act as we move towards celebrating Christmas, it’s the miracle of what we sense is already going on within us all! We know that’s true because we know EMMANUEL! We know how, on that night – in Christ – GOD’S AGAPE-LOVE ITSELF WAS ACTUALLY BORN into our lives!
…AND THAT IS ENOUGH!
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[i] Cited by Center for Action and Contemplation blog Dec 10, 2020, The Gospel without Compromise (Madonna House Publications: 1989), 71.
[iii] Ibid, quoting Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books: 2015), xvii–xix
[iv] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3.
[v] See note i above