December 23, 2007
Today, with my church, I will light the fourth candle of Advent. Like the candles that I and many other Christians have lit in the preceding weeks (candles of hope, peace, and joy), this candle brings with it an important message. The message this candle brings is one of love.
It is said in the Christian Scriptures that love is the greatest of the virtues, and that without love even martyrdom is without any value (1 Corinthians 13). These same Scriptures declare that God is love, and that if one does not love, one does not know God (1 John 4:7-8). It is a sad truth that we who claim to be people of God so often fail to heed this message.
For the majority of Christians who celebrate Christmas a few days from now, the season's message is one of love. If, as Christians believe, Jesus is God in the flesh (incarnate), then those who would truly celebrate his birth and life will be a person who loves. A person, however, doesn't have to be a Christian to understand the principle of love. It is a principle found in some form in just about every major religion. The Jewish Scriptures speak of two great commandments - love of God and love of neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:3- 32). And from the Baha'i tradition we hear that: “In the world of existence there is indeed no greater power than the power of love” (Abdu'l-Baha).
But what is love? Too often our definitions are limited by romantic notions, but love is much more than simply romance. Love is defined by words such as charity and compassion. Indeed, the Latin word for love is caritas, from which the word charity is derived. Charity is, in fact, the word used to translate the Greek agape in the King James Version (1 Corinthians 13). Unfortunately, because our definitions of love seem limited to romance, we limit the idea of charity to a mere handout to one in need. But if charity is love in action, then it is more than a mere hand out. It is instead the embodiment of the principle of love of neighbor. And so to give charity or to receive it is to experience love.
It is, then, no wonder that the principle of charity is insisted upon by most major religions. The Prophet Muhammad said that the best in Islam “is to feed the hungry and to give the greeting of peace both to those one knows and to those one does not know” (Hadith of Bukarhi). And from Jainism: “Charity - to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable, and to offer relief to them out of pity - is the spring of virtue.”
What is true of charity is true of compassion. This statement from within the Hindu tradition says it all: “What sort of religion can it be without compassion? You need to show compassion to all living beings. Compassion is the root of all religious faith” (Basavanna).
We may not perfectly live out the call to love God and neighbor or fully embody the principles of charity and compassion, but the future depends on our putting these principles into practice. And so as I look toward Christmas Day and the message that it brings - that God is love and that this love has inhabited our planet - I will stop and consider my own life and how I live it. I seek to consider the needs of my neighbor in everything I do - from voting to praying.
I invite you to join me in lighting the candle of love on this fourth Sunday of Advent. As we consider the meaning of the love symbolized by this candle, the identity of the neighbor remains with us. If we remain satisfied with loving the one who is nearest at hand and the most like us, then we'll missed the point of the candle.
Jesus spoke of not only loving one's neighbor, but also of one's enemy. To embrace such a principle won't be easy, but that is what this candle we're lighting symbolizes. So, won't you join me in lighting the candle of love and make love visible by working to break down the social and cultural barriers of our world that seek to divide us?
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org). He blogs at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.
December 23, 2007