The Christmas image of the stable and its inhabitants brings me back 30 years to a small upstairs bedroom where I sat in a big easy chair holding my newborn daughter. There was a deep silence, and I was consumed by unconditional love for this little creature who was soft and warm and smelled of the earth. It was an experience of love that transcended all bounds, of time standing still, of nothing in the outside world coming in to interrupt this deep communion. This memory challenged me to think again of what the Christmas story might be telling me.
My usual point of focus at Christmas is on the details of the celebration: What time is the Christmas service? Who’s coming for dinner? When will we exchange presents? This satisfies my social structure but does not leave much room for me to sink into what’s really happening. “Dig under stockings, credit card bills, Christmas concert programs,” says author Mary Ellen Ashcroft. “Pull off layers of carols, drifts of snow, a gingerbread house recipe”—and find—“oh, my God! A baby!”
Am I even capable of entering into the mystery not only of God taking on human flesh but God presenting God’s self (embarrassingly) as one deeply in love with me—and with the whole human race? What if love is the primary message of Christmas? And if it is, can I wrap my head around it—or rather, can I open my heart to it?
Like children, we need to be reminded again and again of God’s outrageous, unconditional love for us—love beyond understanding. This love is not limited by the conditions we may put on it. It’s not earned by our worth; it’s not an assurance of safety and security, giving us health, wealth, and happiness. This love wears down our defenses and seeps into our bones, creating an opening to our heart.
Sometimes, perhaps after a deep hurt or disappointment, we recognize God knocking on the door, asking to come in. Telling us that we are not alone, offering a love where “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8: 38, 39). This love transforms our vision of ourselves and the world. It transforms the smallness of our hearts into the wideness of God’s mercy.
Theologian Richard Rohr observed, “The enormous breakthrough is that when you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know it is just as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. That is why you stop judging, and that is how you start loving unconditionally and without asking whether someone is worthy or not.”
Advent is a time of seeking so that we may find the gift of Christmas. The cost is to let down our defenses, open our hearts, and let God’s love move us into who knows where.