Christmas is for lovers
It's impossible to overemphasize the centrality of love in our beautiful tradition. The mystery of love is inexhaustible, present at the beginning when God brought forth all that is, singing in Jesus' incarnation, life, death and resurrection, pulsing through each of us as Spirit, and drawing us to a future where peace and justice will reign forever. This Christmas, I was reminded again what it's really all about: Love.
Just before Advent began, I sat in quiet prayer, asking how God wanted me to spend the sacred, often-too-short-feeling season. With thousands of options for daily Advent reflections and theme calendars floating around, I wondered: What would my practice be? How would I make space and wait? How would I grow?
In the silence, three words materialized: "Receive my love."
The simplicity surprised me.
Just receive? I thought. It seemed too good to be true. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, but I supposed it would require more effort on my part. I was imagining active Advent verbs: make space, clear clutter, pay attention.
I waited a little longer.
Nothing else came. The tiny sentence had taken root in my heart, and I sensed that God wanted it to stay there.
Receive my love.
Three words. And a lifetime's worth of learning.
I smiled. I spend a lot of time striving. Even when I preach to others how much God loves them, sometimes a block in my heart — perhaps from past wounds or present worry — keeps me from truly believing in God's unfathomable love for me. Even though I have vowed my life to a God I know to be pure graciousness, I resisted when I sensed that this God wanted me to simply receive love. It felt like a gift I didn't deserve. Aha! I smiled again. Of course — that's the point! That's the Judeo-Christian story. Our God is given-ness. We are each loved with a "love beyond all telling."
Like a good human being, I found myself complicating things throughout Advent. But whenever I most needed it, I would flip through my journal and remember God's invitation meant to frame my whole Advent journey: Receive my love. My being would somehow breathe a sigh of relief. I would settle into silence, palms wide open, not working or figuring out, but simply resting in God's love.
As Advent progressed, God's invitation deepened. Prayer saw the phrase expanded: Receive my love and share it with others. Again, I smiled at profundity revealed in simplicity. The freely offered warmth and tenderness of God naturally overflow, compelling me to reflect the same to others. Real love doesn't stay put. And it doesn't originate with us, but with the Source of everything. I think I've heard this somewhere before: Love one another as I have loved you.
I'll never forget Adriana's embrace. Her arms were all the way around me, fingers practically digging into my back, head resting on my shoulder, tears moistening my jacket, most of her body weight leaning on me for support. My eyes closed in prayer as I held her. I was still, silently letting her know she could stay in my arms as long as she wanted. It was as if she'd been waiting for a hug for weeks.
Adriana left Guatemala with her two children in October, and here she was, the day before Thanksgiving, at Centro San Juan Diego shelter in El Paso, Texas, that welcomes migrants recently released from detention. Adriana and her two kids spent four days in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after their month-long journey on foot, bus and everything in between. They had been corralled in cold rooms with little food and only an aluminum sheet for sleeping, still wearing the same outfits they had donned to depart Guatemala over a month ago. The center would give them good food, clothes, showers, and a warm place to sleep.
I was volunteering in the intake room. We looked over the migrants' immigration papers and helped them connect with loved ones elsewhere in the United States who would arrange for their travel. Moments ago, Adriana had spoken with her brother.
"Sí, hermano," she said when I handed her the shelter's little Nokia cell phone. "Sí, estamos bien, gracias a Dios" (Yes, we're fine, thanks be to God.)
This is what most people said when they spoke with family, and it floored me. They had just voyaged from their dangerous, destitute homeland to an unknown country where they were detained like criminals. The shelter physician had diagnosed Adriana's daughter, 6 years old, with pneumonia. She was bent over, coughing, with her forehead on the table. Adriana's son, 3 years old, sat blankly in a little chair next to his sister, not squirmy like a healthy toddler. But they were "fine." I suppose that after such a journey, and such a life before the journey, just being alive and together was something.
Adriana handed the phone back to me when she had finished talking with her brother. He had assured us he would buy cross-country Greyhound bus tickets for her little family to go and live with him while they navigated asylum proceedings. Adriana sighed forcefully and lifted her chin, as if recognizing how far she had come and summoning courage for how far she still had to go.
"You're so close to reuniting with your brother," I said, peering into her weary eyes and reflecting all the love I could muster in mine.
"Sí, sí, Hermana. In a few days, we'll be there," she nodded tentatively.
"But you've been through so much," I acknowledged gently, giving her the space to share if she wanted to.
"Oh sí, Hermana!" she nodded more vigorously, eyes moistening. "It's been so hard. My babies are sick, and the journey was so long and hard, and in detention they treated us like animals …"
"Can I hug you?" I asked.
Her answer was wordless; she immediately thrust herself forward, curling into me. Her body now heaved as weeks of pain and fear erupted into sobs. I was overcome with God's presence — I felt like my arms were God's arms, and God's love was pouring through me to her. The given-ness of God's love was using me as a vessel. My heart fell to its knees, pulsing with tender compassion and humbled at the privilege of welcoming this precious woman and her family.
When she finally pulled away, breathing more calmly, I grasped her hands gently.
"You made it," I whispered. "You're going to be okay."
She smiled for the first time.
"I'm just happy we're finally in a place where there is love."
Beloved, be loved and be love
I don't think it's any accident that so many of the epistles we read in the Christmas season begin with the word "beloved." After an Advent blessed with receiving the gift of God's love, the word "beloved" jumps up and touches my heart again each time.
"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God," we read during Christmas Eve night prayer (1 John 4:7-11). "Beloved, if God so loved us, we must also love another" (1 John 4:11).
It seems that it is God's deepest hunger for us to know this truth — that we are beloved — and share that truth with every person we meet.
This is the joy of Christmas: It is not a one-day crescendo that leaves us melancholy once the presents are unwrapped and the lights come down. It is the story of love that brought forth the universe and then took on flesh to make that love even more visible, touchable, undeniable. It is the story of a God who, as Karl Rahner says, is both the giver and the gift. It is the story of knowing and sharing, of being loved and being love to others. The story is ours to receive and ours to retell, from generation to generation.
Beloved, simply open your heart, and let God make Christmas come alive in you and through you. Beloved, you are loved. And you are love.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who authored the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training during formation. After a decade in social justice and Hispanic ministry, she is working toward her master's degree in pastoral ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.]