We’ve had Hope, Peace and Joy in these first three Advent Sundays, and today, the final Sunday, brings us Love which, according to St Paul, is the greatest of the three virtues of faith and hope. It is perhaps also the most difficult quality to live out every day, the most often abused by people –family, partner, colleague, friend- and therefore also the one each of us is also likely to misuse, for we too are part of family, jobs, friendships circles.
There are two risks. One, the obvious one, is back-biting, gossiping, attacking others verbally or physically, cutting people down, being mean, unkind, or unhelpful when help was easily possible. But the less obvious difficulty is over-giving, not through genuine generosity but rather under-loving of the self which, as Erich Fromm has wisely pointed out, comes less from freely loving the other than from a need to feel less negative about oneself because the recipient is pleased. Such over-giving may be expressed in doing so much for others their autonomy and dignity is removed, or more obviously controlling others through sacrificial smothering. How often in the past have I heard Christians –especially women- say, ‘But love of self is wrong.’ Says who? Self-indulgent glorifying of the self is nauseating: but what of the great commandment to love God, love your neighbour as yourself? God loves each of you, and me: can we not love and respect ourselves?
If you like, over-giving, ‘loving too much,’ is a form of sacrifice given from a needy rather than a generous heart. That’s why the Hebrews reading today is so interesting. It links up with other Hebrew Bible texts apparently against sacrifice, whether Hosea’s ‘I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God not burnt offerings,’ or Malachi, where God rejects the offerings because the animals were old, lame or sick. Not that being lame or old are wrong: but a half-broken or incomplete gift is not generous but rather a ‘yes but…’ with conditions attached. For the purpose of sacrifice is reconciliation, between the one offering and God. As we are told that before reconciling ourselves with God, we should reconcile with our neighbours, who are all, and, following that logic, be reconciled with our own self, being at peace with our own self.
It would have been easy for Elizabeth not to have reconciled with her cousin Mary, so easy to have scored a point- for as a long-barren lady she would have been so long shamed, the object of scorn and pity; so easy to have said ‘Yes, well, my girl, left this marriage a bit late didn’t you. I suppose you can sully my door and come in.’ But she didn’t. Accepting the gift of life herself- in contrast to her priest husband’s disbelief – she had the loving generosity to bless Mary’s child.
And it is in that same generosity that Jesus offered himself in death, to end the need for our merit-making in order to make ourselves acceptable to God. That’s been done: so acts of love are not, should not, be acts of making merit to allow ourselves to look a bit less bad, but acts of joy flowing from God’s love for us. Yes, it’s so easy to do pseudo- acts of love, especially when we are actually annoyed or even angry, but that is an offering separate from God, even separating us from God, for there is no reconciliation, no honesty, no respect for the other. True, reconciliation cannot be forced, for we are only responsible for our own attempt at reconciliation, not that of the other person or persons.
There’s no ‘happiness’ candle, which is a pity. So let’s include happiness today: love and happiness, happy in the knowledge we are accepted by God, Parent, Child and enfolding Presence, as we wait for the ever-repeated joy of the coming of our Reconciling God to earth. Yet even that will not be an instant panacea for all our anxieties and problems: but if we accept the coming Christ, it will be a start. Let this Taize prayer say it for us:
O Risen Christ, You breathe your Holy Spirit on us and tell us: Peace be yours. Opening ourselves to your peace –letting it penetrate the stony ground of our hearts- means preparing ourselves to be bearers of reconciliation wherever you may place us. But you know that at times we are at a loss. So come and lead us to wait in silence, to let a ray of hope shine forth in our world.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, 21st December 2015