I’ll bet you remember your first love. You remember the giddy sensation that poured over you when the other person actually noticed you, and how your heart beat wildly at that first dance and that first kiss. You might be one of those people whose first love turns out to be your life-love, but for many, life circumstances or time simply changes things and the bloom of love fades. We “move on,” painfully, but hopefully, when the time is right, we do find our life-love. A love that like the others starts in giddiness, but ultimately relies on something deeper to carry through the years.
Almost universally, when you ask a couple that has been together for a long time how they did it, they will say they had to work at it. They paid attention to their lover, they made changes and even sacrifices to keep that bond of love alive. Love that goes on automatic withers. Almost all long-term relationships have periods of conflict or distance; times when it is a commitment to love itself that holds things together.
This dynamic certainly seems accurate even when we are talking about our love of God – the ultimate life-love! Anyone who has ever taken their faith seriously knows they must continue to take their faith seriously in order to stay in love with God. Love of God that is on automatic, practiced by rote, withers. And, as with any personal relationship, love that is centered on self, rather than on the other, is doomed. Love that will not sacrifice for the other, or love that resents the sacrifice, has no future.
But is this how God loves us? Surely, an omnipotent and divine Almighty has no need to court our love. Why shouldn’t God just put love on automatic? Certainly, God has no need to put the other in front of himself. And yet, as the Biblical record shows, God does all of these things. God has never forced obedience, instead wooing and guiding prophet and saint and sinner alike into a relationship with God in which obedience is not subservience but enlightenment. And God just won’t go away, even when things get bad. God made a commitment to humanity that he keeps long after humanity has forgotten its commitment to him. Finally, God makes the ultimate sacrifice for humanity, a sacrifice that benefits humanity immeasurably even at the cost of the suffering and death of his Son.
So, when we sing, “Love came down at Christmas,” are we singing about holding hands and first kisses, or are we singing about the grand, nearly unobtainable perfect love of God? Yes? Maybe? Remember how Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains? (Matthew 17:20) When Love came down at Christmas, it was in a tiny package – an infant. All of the miracles, all of the healing, all of the sacrifice was in the future, yet there Love lay, in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes and embodying all that was yet to come. Love, too, may have a tiny beginning, similar to the mustard seed or even that first kiss, yet it contains the full promise of great Love to come. Love must be nurtured, worked at, paid attention to, so that ultimately we love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 15:12). A life-long love, rooted in a commitment to Love. That first kiss, that little baby, may have held only the promise; Christ fulfilled that promise, and gave us the means to fulfill that promise as well.