Love Was His Meaning – Br. James Koester

Br. James KoesterGrandmothers, at least my grandmothers, are quite wonderful! I have many fond memories of them. One of them, whom we all called Nanny, had the softest skin of anyone I have ever known. I loved to snuggle up with her when she came for a visit, and feel the softness of her cheeks. The other, whom we all called Grandma, took an interest in everything around her. Even when she was well into her eighties, she was always taking trips here and there, exploring the country with this friend or that one. Over the years she enrolled in countless classes, or joined book clubs and attended poetry writing workshops. She took film classes, and practiced her drawing, and went on bird watching expeditions.

The summer I was 20, I lived with Grandma, and over supper in the evening, she and I would talk books. I had discovered Thomas Merton that summer, and was reading The Seven Story Mountain. Grandma had discovered Hans Kung, and was reading On Being a Christian, and so our evening conversations were about theology and spirituality. Pretty heady stuff for a 20 year old and his grandmother!

I remember at one point that summer Grandma telling me that she wasn’t sure what she believed, or even, if she believed. I don’t remember being either shocked or surprised by this revelation. The grandmother I knew and loved, was an intensely curious individual, and was never satisfied with easy answers. This was the same woman who, after all, had pestered her father with questions about the nature of God. As a young girl, Grandma had wanted to know if God could make a rock so heavy, that even God could not lift it. Why would God want to do that, her father had asked. Unsatisfied with his non-answer, she tried again. Could God run faster than the train (which, in 1908 when this conversation must have taken place, was the fastest thing Grandma had ever been on)? Again, her father’s non-answer, why would God want to do that, left her unsatisfied.

The paradox of Grandma was that all her life she was a faithful Anglican and regular churchgoer, who was quite content to hold together belief, coupled with a real and intense curiosity about the world around her, including the nature and even existence of God.

But as special, at least to me, as Grandma was, I don’t think she was at all unusual. For millennia, people of faith have struggled to comprehend the incomprehensible nature of God. We may not be asking if God could create a rock so large and heavy that God cannot lift it. We may not be asking if God can outrun the train. But still we ask questions about the nature and being of God. Usually our questions about God are about God’s power, God’s strength, God’s wisdom. We want to know about God’s omnipotence and omniscience. We want to know about God’s all-powerfulness and God’s all-knowingness.

Christmas, however, reminds us that there is another aspect of God which is equally incomprehensible: God’s weakness and God’s vulnerability. The message of Christmas is that God comes to us, not in might and majesty, but in weakness and vulnerability, as the helpless Child of Bethlehem.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[1]

It is there, in that weak and vulnerable infant, that Father Congreve, an early member of our community, found the true nature of God. Addressing the community during the Christmas retreat of 1879, Father Congreve said: let us … think of this wonder of the Incarnation of Christ. What is its meaning? God manifest in the flesh. But how can flesh manifest God? What characteristics of God does this little silent child manifest? Not [God’s] power …, nor [God’s] justice, nor [God’s] wisdom; this little child manifests not one attribute [of God], but God Himself: for [Jesus] is the appearing of the kindness and love of God. That is not one of God’s attributes, but [God’s] very being; for ‘God is love’. (1 John 4: 8)[2]

We gather tonight before this crèche to behold a mystery: the mystery of God, so tiny and helpless, that he can offer nothing to us, except His love; so tiny and helpless, that he can demand nothing from us, except our love. Here, before us, lies God, who wants only to love us, caring not that we may feel ourselves unworthy of such love. Here before us lies God, who wants only our love, caring not that we may feel ourselves unable to love so purely.

We live in a world fascinated by strength and power. As humans, we are drawn to the strongest, the fastest, the smartest. Weakness and vulnerability are anathema. As a result, like my grandmother those many years ago, we focus on God’s all-powerfulness and all-knowingness. Yet, Christmas tells us that there is another aspect of God, and that is the simple, pure, all-consuming love, manifested to us, not in strength and wisdom, but in the weakness and vulnerability of an infant, who knows only how to love, and wants only love in return. It is there, in the love of an infant, that tonight we find God, who desires only to love us, and to be loved by us in return.

Christmas reminds us that the desire of God is to draw out from us a response of love. God desires our love, not because we are afraid, for that would not be love; nor because we are intimidated, for that would not be love; nor even because we are impressed, for that too would not be love. God desires to draw out from us a response of love, not because we are amazed by God’s ability to lift rocks or outrun trains. God desires our love for the simple reason that God is love[3] and all that God has done, is to manifest that love. Again as Father Congreve reminds us: love is the cause of all creation. It was for love that God created angels and [mortals] and all the worlds. God meets me everywhere in His creation, and God is love wherever I go. I know, wherever I may be, under whatever circumstances, the Divine love is there before me. In the plan of everything I see, in its purpose, God created it from love. Thus love is present to me in all creation, though hidden – a glimpse seen, a voice heard, though nothing be clear to me in the outward creation – yet it is continual; there is a continual hint of the love of God, which is Himself, [God’s] very being.[4]

Many of us spend a great deal of our life doing all that we can, to earn another’s love. We think we will be more loveable if we were richer, or thinner, or smarter, or more athletic, or had a better job. And so we set out to do just that. But Christmas reminds us that this is not the case. The Child of Bethlehem who lies at your feet tonight wants simply to love you, yes you. He loves you, not as you might be, or think you should be, or even as you once were, but as you are, at this very moment.

We come here tonight, to gather around this crèche, because we know our need to be loved. We know our own need to be loved; and we know too that our sad, torn, broken, and hurting world, needs to hear a word of love. That word of love for us, tonight, is Jesus. Here at our feet lies love, and the One who is Love. Here at our feet lies Love, reaching up to grasp us, and to love us, if only we will bend down and embrace Him and love Him in return.

The Child of Love who lies before you tonight cares not who you are, or what you have done, or even what you have left undone. All the Child of Love wants from you tonight is your love, and all He can give in return, is love.

For many, our love of God is conditional, on what God might do for us. That love is conditional on God’s strength, God’s speed, God’s power; on God’s ability to pick up heavy rocks and outrun trains. Others believe that their love is not good enough, not pure enough, not holy enough and so they dare not love God in return.

The Child of Love who lies before you has no strength, nor speed, nor power, but only love. The Child of Love who lies before you tonight cares not who you are, or were, or one day might be. The Child of Love who lies before you tonight wants only your love, however you can give it, and will love you wholly in return.

It seems incomprehensible that the Author and Maker of all things should come to us in weakness and vulnerability, but it is the weakness and vulnerability of love.

A mystery lies before us tonight, and that mystery is God; not the God of strength and speed and power, but the mystery of God who comes to us in the weakness and vulnerability of an infant. And what do we see in the face of this weak and vulnerable infant? We see the face of Love and the One who is Love, for God is love, and we hear again the words of Dame Julian, the Mystic of Norwich:

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.[5]

So tonight put aside your picture of God all-powerful and all-knowing, and your fear that you are not good enough for God, and reach out and embrace this Child of Love who only wants your love, and to love you in return.

Merry Christmas everyone. God loves you, yes, you, and even now, the Child of Love is reaching His tiny hand, out of the manger, to grasp you. Won’t you bend down and return that love, if even only for tonight?

Merry Christmas!

[1] Luke 2: 1 – 7

[2] Congreve, George, The Incarnation and the Religious Life, page 7

[3] 1 John 4: 8

[4] Congreve, page 7 – 8

[5] Julian of Norwich, Showings, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1978,  page 342

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  1. Ruth West on January 31, 2019 at 15:25

    Br.James, this is the best of Christmas homilies! Even more than a month later, it is always appropriate.
    Truly God is love. My mother told me that when I was about three years old, my Sunday School teacher presented a little program with her little ones before our whole congregation in that small country church in Louisiana. I remember my “piece” so vividly. I stood and belted out, “God is love.” The older folk complimented me, and I, no doubt, felt proud. It is one of my earliest memories. God bless that sweet teacher who taught me those three significant words! So akin to the so-called Golden Text of the Bible, John 3:16. May I always love Him and serve Him! Thanks for this wonderful message.

  2. Valerie McCarty on December 29, 2017 at 00:05

    Fr. James Koester, deep thanks for sharing your self-disclosure – evidently inspired from Above!

  3. Valerie McCarty on December 28, 2017 at 23:56

    Very precious viewpoint is given herein. Indeed what could be of greater value than pure, childlike, innocent love offered continually over eternity by our Messiah. Gifted magnificently as, from day one, a Babe in manger!

  4. Gene Fox on December 27, 2017 at 11:53

    Thank you for this magnificent gift, Brother James. I’ll open it again, each of these twelve days.
    Please forgive me if it seems cheapening to liken the exquisite, deep-soul thrills your words give me to those that ripple through me during that scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where Linus so gently and powerfully reminds Charlie, “…And that’s what Christmas is all about.”
    You beautifully, gently, powerfully, remind us of what life is, or should be, all about.

    Again, thank you. Thank you most sincerely.

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