Last week my friends Rhea and Joel took their three-year old daughter, Olive, to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus. When it came to sitting on Santa’s lap for a photo op she wasn’t having any of it, but she did enjoy having them read her a story. It all went pretty well, until, on the way home, Olive began to get very concerned that Rhea might not have gotten her Christmas list right. She anxiously asked her mother, with a voice as serious as a heart attack, “Did you tell them I want love?!”
I wonder if you got your Christmas list right. You probably remembered the iPAD Air, Burt’s Bees Tips and Toes Kit, and the DVD Box Set of all five seasons of “Breaking Bad.” The stockings are hung, the cookies are baked, and the roast beast is thawing. You can go check, check, check, right down your to-do list. But did you remember what you really want? Or were you too afraid to ask?
It is so easy at Christmas to forget what we really want. It is an ache so deep in us that we readily distract ourselves with lots and lots of other stuff. We get busy. We make ourselves impressive so nobody will notice, no matter how empty we may feel inside. We settle for the items way down on the Christmas list for fear we might not get what we really want. But not Olive: “Did you tell them I want love?!”
Not romantic illusions, not sentimental tripe, not early parole for good behavior, not some quid pro quo, but unconditional, unconstrained, unlimited love – enough to last forever – that is what we really want. And that is precisely what we get for Christmas, if only we have the courage to receive it. Hear the angel saying, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
God’s love comes in unexpected places, in ways we could never have anticipated. It comes, as Jesus himself said, like a thief in the night, especially on this night. We gather tonight at the scene of a break-in. Love is breaking-in. The birth of Jesus is an inside job, God’s way of subverting our suspicion, cynicism, and fear from the inside in the only way He could: in the form of a vulnerable child, slipping right through our defended hearts and breaking them wide open.
God comes to us in Jesus to steal the only thing He desires from us: our hearts. The mystery of Christmas is not how much we desire to be loved by God, but how much God desires to be loved by us, the lengths to which God will go to reveal His desire for us. God desires our love because He knows that our loving Him (and our neighbor, which is the flip side of the coin), is the only way to open ourselves to receiving the love for which we so deeply yearn.
The shepherds hear the Angels’ song and come rejoicing to the manger. The birth of Jesus is good news for absolutely everybody, even for nobodies like these poor shepherds; especially for nobodies like these poor shepherds, who now realize they are the objects of an infinite love, a divine gaze reflecting back to them an inalienable dignity.
But love is never easy, and with dignity comes responsibility. Mary treasures the good news the shepherds bring, but she also ponders it in her heart. The arc of love that begins in the manger ends at the foot of the Cross, but it bends toward new life, stronger than death, bursting forth anew in the Resurrection. Love gives us a lot to think about. No wonder Mary turned pensive that first of many sleepless, nursing nights.
We, too, are swept up in the arc of love, a wild spiraling journey that brings us back again to Bethlehem to rediscover love’s joy and love’s courage: the courage of a mother’s love; the courage of our Father’s love, holy be his Name; what we all want and need because we were made for love.
William Blake describes God, the source of love, as like the sun, which gives its light and heat away,
“And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
The beams of love are sometimes as weightless and warm as the sunlight on our face; sometimes they are as heavy and numbing as the hard wood of the cross. Our life’s purpose is to learn to bear those beams: to give birth to love, to bring it forth in every act of creativity and compassion in our lives; and to carry this love for and with each other, even when it is a heavy load.
“Did you tell them I want love?” May love be our plea, our gift, and our sign, as we make our way again to Bethlehem.  Amen.