“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16)
I took a quick tour through the Baptist Hymnal (1991) in the sections labeled “Advent” and “Birth.” I was curious as to which words showed up most often in these carols. Here are the most-repeated words I found:
- Joy – and its cousin, Rejoice
- Glory – along with Gloria
I was surprised that Love wasn’t more pronounced. It was there, to be sure. But I assumed that it would be more dominant. After all, what image comes to mind when you see, in your mind’s eye, a young mother holding her baby?
Love certainly takes a primary place in the New Testament in general. In the list of the fruit of the Spirit, love comes first. Paul refers to it as the greatest of all the gifts.
And returning to the central character for a moment, the baby whose coming we celebrate this holy season grew to be a man who was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”
Without hesitation he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”
But he didn’t stop there. He added a second, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
This command to love God and neighbor lies at the heart of the Christmas story, for as the Gospel of John explains, “God loved the world so much he sent his Son…”
Maybe the reason the word “love” isn’t more prominent in our favorite Christmas carols is because too often we misunderstand the concept. Christmas is a pretty emotional holiday, full of feelings of “good tidings” and “great joy.”
But biblical love is not emotional. It is volitional. It is not about feelings but actions. It is actually about the need to set aside our feelings and seek the best for others, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we may not particularly like them.
That’s why the word so often used for this concept in the King James Version is “charity.” While that term falls short in some important ways, it avoids the problem of associating love with sentimentality and emotion, and implies actions more than feelings.
If Advent and the coming of the Christ child are about anything, they are about love – of God for us, of us for God, and the way we show that love – treating our neighbors the way we want to be treated, whether we feel like it or not. It’s about setting the world to rights, fulfilling the prayer of the grown-up babe of Bethlehem to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
That idea is captured powerfully in the fourth verse of one of our most beloved carols:
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love.
– O God, help us to grow ever more into the ultimate expression of your love made flesh, and to fulfill his command to love, by creating a world that reflects his will and purpose. Amen.