Advent 4: Love
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
How do I love thee, let me count the ways, Elizabeth Barrett Browning asks in her famous poem.
And then she answers the question with a list, in the form of a sonnet, of ways any lover would rejoice to hear. Many of us could look at our beloved and make a list, maybe not in a beautifully rhymed sonnet, but a list that might delight the one who is not expecting such a tribute.
For both the giver and the receiver, words of love have the power to lift our spirits. No matter who we are, how young or old we are, we appreciate knowing that we are loved.
Love letters are not just for lovers, but for a child or a grandchild, an old friend, a former teacher or neighbor, or even God.
And that’s just what we find in our Gospel reading for today.
Mary pens a love letter to God…”My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, holy is his name.” Then she lists the ways that God has done great things for her and for those who fear/revere him. Specificity is the key to a good love letter. And Mary gets specific:
“He has shown strength and scattered the proud; he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty; he has helped his servant Israel according to his promise.”
Mary’s words of love to God pour out over to bless the people reading her words.
Her words bless the people who do not receive much praise, let alone love letters: the lowly, the hungry and the servants. Her words reveal that love is not just a written word, but is a living testimony in the form of real acts of justice, mercy and love.
Right before Mary’s letter of love comes the story of Elizabeth. When Mary found out that she was pregnant before she married Joseph, she was scared and alone. Joseph was not sure what to do yet—dismiss her quietly, have her punished, or take her as his wife and live with the condemnation and rejection from their families. Mary didn’t know where to turn, and so she went to visit her relative Elizabeth.
Without hesitation, Elizabeth opened her arms and welcomed Mary into her home. She did not call her names, she called her blessed: “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Elizabeth showed Mary love. When she needed it most.
In time, through Mary, the word of God will become flesh. That is, the seed of love will take root and grow into the person of Jesus Christ, who was love-incarnate and called us to love God and love others—in words, yes, but also in actions. He called us not just say it but to show it.
Love is hard to understand, let alone describe. Love is a common subject for writers.
Anne Sexton wrote: “Love grew around her like crabgrass.” This is a surprising way to talk about love, but a beautiful way, because it gets at something true: where love finds a place to take root, it spreads in all directions and finds new places to take root and cling. Love is rooting and branching everywhere….
In Writer Virginia Woolf’s story “To the Lighthouse,” as character Lily struggles to paint her family’s summer home, she speaks the phrase, “love had a thousand shapes.” What a perfect description of love.
Love does have a thousand shapes. Love has many manifestations in our world today.
I have observed a variety of love’s many shapes. Let me count the ways:
• A man said to the Starbucks cashier, “I want to pay for the person behind me, too, just because”
*A woman invites a homeless man to her house for Thanksgiving dinner.
• A teacher reaches out to a trouble-making preschool student, not to punish, but to take him in her lap and comfort him
• A father, although frustrated with his son for not getting a job and living at home rent free, asks how he can help and reassures him that he is worthy
• A woman stays by her mother’s side while she is dying, holding her hand and whispering prayers
Love is often expressed in music. The oldie but goodie tune by Reg Presley sings, “Love is All Around Us….I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes…”
That’s the irony of love. Sometimes we don’t feel it. It eludes us. It escapes us.
Or truthfully, it masquerades as something else that we don’t always recognize as love.
“Love has a thousand shapes. A thousand faces. A thousand facets, each burning with its own brilliance.
Love may be, as St. Paul writes, patient and kind, but it can also be edgy, articulate, able to speak truth to power, fierce with conviction and strong and mysterious…” (Marilyn McEntyre, Adverbs for Advent)
But, whatever it is, as St. Paul ends his love letter:
and now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”
There’s a story retold by Peter Marty in the latest edition of the Christian Century: It is about a man named William who failed at everything. Alone and desperately hungry in Chicago, out of contact with his parents for years, he comes to the realization on Christmas night that “he never had the essentials of success, only the superficial agility that is often mistaken for it.” The one option left to him, he concludes, is stealing. Breaking into a house that night, he discovers that he has burglarized the home of his own parents—who, unbeknownst to him, had moved to Chicago. His mother recognizes him rummaging through her jewelry drawers in the dark. She moves in to touch her wayward son. “Oh my boy, we have waited so long for this!”
Frightened and shaken, he resists her embrace. “I wonder if you know how much you pardon?” he asks. “Much or little, she says, ”what does it matter? Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it only loves, and loves—and loves? That’s when she kissed him. It’s also when dawn began to break into his life.
Mary’s love letter is not just to God, but it is to all of us, to allow dawn to break into our lives.
Mary’s words help us feel love deep into our bodies and hearts and souls, to lift us up and fill us with good things, and to help us embody love in thousands of ways each and every day.
We light the fourth candle this morning, the candle of love…and in doing so we remember that first, we were created and loved by God and second, that we are called to be light-bearers and love-sharers.
Mary’s song magnifies the Savior who loves the whole world with a love that makes creation whole.
God’s saving judgment is for all of us, bringing us down from the pride that fills us with ourselves
until we can’t see either God or neighbor, bringing us up from the shame that distorts our worldview and convinces us that no one -- not even God -- could love us.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve--when God’s love becomes flesh and comes to the world saying to each and every one of us: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”