Sometimes during the holiday season, I find myself getting a little self-righteous.
It’s not intentional. I’m not trying to puff myself up. But I love to get dressed up and go to church. I really love it. Especially during the holidays, I love to put on something pretty and go to a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. I love Advent. I love it all. There’s a sense of duty fulfilled - it’s the same feeling I get from attending a funeral. I love knowing what’s expected of me - the “right” thing to do - and completing that thing. I would have made an excellent Pharisee because I love rules.
But this year, we have been delinquent. 3 out of 3 Sundays of Advent, we haven’t been at church. Either family in town or us being out of town has prevented us from showing up. In fact, we have been delinquent about church more Sundays than just Advent Sundays - traveling, returning from travel, some days pure exhaustion. And that sits like an anvil on my chest - I feel that guilt and shame, and start to think, “Can I even call myself a Christian if I miss this much church?” I believe strongly in the power of a Christian community, showing up in one place each week to remind ourselves that we have been given the gift of perfect love. I believe showing up for worship is an important thing.
Last night I was sitting from of my tree with my husband and dog after the baby had gone down for the night, and it occurred to me - a lesson I’ve learned a hundred times over: even on my best day, I can’t earn the love of God. When I attend church regularly and dress up and polish it all up, I can sometimes convince myself that I’ve done what is necessary to deserve God’s love.
But that is decidedly NOT THE POINT OF CHRISTMAS.
No one deserves perfect love because we are not perfect people. And for the record, I’m not of the “SINNER!!!!!” camp. I don’t really subscribe to the “saved a wretch like me” theology because I don’t think God thinks of us as wretches. I just mean that if the love of God worked the way the justice system did, we’d all be prisoners for life without parole - all our daily offenses would stack up against us. And while I don’t want to get all “washed in the blood,” because that’s not really my thing, I think there’s something to be said for reminding ourselves that God’s love has nothing to do with what we do - the love of God is on this earth for all of us to experience, REGARDLESS of the state of our conscience or our church attendance. God doesn’t love me any more on Sundays I’m in a pew than God loves me on Sundays when I’m bleary-eyed and nursing a cup of coffee that’s been microwaved for the third time.
(This is not to say that church attendance isn’t important, by the way. For my thoughts on that, please see par 3. And this is not to say that we all shouldn’t be trying to do better, of course. Because that’s a really, really important thing, too.)
What it is to say is that it’s a very nice reminder that Christmas, the coming of Christ, isn’t about how good or squeaky clean you are. The Christmas story shows the personified love of God appearing as a BABY. You may not have a baby or maybe it’s been a while, but having recently experienced my son’s first full year of life, let me tell you that this fact has never knocked me between the eyes more than this year. Guess what? Babies are helpless. They’re a mess. They’re obnoxious. I have a hard time believing that young Mary didn’t roll her eyes at baby Jesus when he was about 5 1/2 months old.
But you know what else is true about babies? They are the purest, sweetest, most sacred of us. They love you unconditionally, right from the start. So it’s no wonder to me that we see Christ for the very first time appear to us as baby.
The love of God shows up in the dirt to a teenage mom in the form of the most humble creature there is. The love of God is pure and holy but also not afraid to get down in the mud with us. The love of God wrapped up in a person, too young to know any better but to love these regular old humans in his path. Pure and holy dirt love. This is the miracle of Christmas.
Sure, we talk about the love of God as that of a parent, but what about imagining it as the love of a child? Doesn’t that change the game? It does for me. Much like Mac doesn’t care what I look like or whether I’ve been to church, the baby Jesus sees me. I get the baby Jesus. This year I get that Jesus more than any other version.
This a garbled mess of a post and I’m not even going to spell check it. That feels right. The point is: I remembered last night that the love and goodness of God are unchanging. I find that extravagant and daunting and a little anxiety producing, if I’m honest, that I can’t check a list. I have been stealing the silver and now I’ve been given the candlesticks, too. It doesn’t make any sense to me, this gift. If we’re very lucky, we’ve experienced that kind of holy love from humans already - from our own parents and grandparents and siblings and spouses. That love is not of you or me - it’s sourced from something very sacred and deep and just plain magical, even in the moments we’re not aware of where it comes from.
And yet here we all are anyway.
So if you’re like me and you’re carrying around a little shame about something or other, feeling inadequate or unworthy or whatever it is, that’s okay. But sit here with me in remembering the fact that brand new baby Jesus has something to teach us about the unconditional and precious love we’re surrounded by, that we are duty bound to pass along to our neighbors and friends and co-workers and family.
I have been challenged and taught by my own small son, born just a few days before Christmas last year. This year, I’m awestruck again, stumbling my way to Bethlehem. I find myself empty handed, receiving a gift instead of bringing one.
Pure and holy dirt love.