Love is a much used and abused term in the English language. We use the same word to describe how we feel about certain foods, such as pizza and chocolate, and our family and closest friends. The Greeks had four words for love, eros, philia, storge and agape, all related to love of people, not things or activities.
In The Brother’s Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky says, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, as compared to love in dreams.” I used to teach an introductory psychology class at a local college. When I came to the chapter on love, I would put this quote on the board and ask the students what they thought it meant. Usually students had no clue. Then I would tell them about Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which started during the great depression and continues to provide homeless people with shelter and food, and so much more.
Starry eyed students would come to Catholic Worker houses thinking they would help these people and the homeless would be forever grateful. In reality, street people were frequently hard to love. They smelled of the street and were often mentally unstable, unpleasant and ungrateful. Love in action means acting in a loving manner even when you don’t feel any love. It reminds us that love is more than a feeling. It’s a choice. To paraphrase Dorothy, the poor will hate your for your charity unless it is given with love.
The quote from Dostoyevsky was a favorite one of Day’s. When the warm, fuzzy feelings are gone, love keeps on giving. Parents know about this love. They act in loving ways to their children even when the children are far from lovable, when they act out and misbehave. Parents need to provide tough love at times, giving their children what they need in order to grow up to be responsible adults, rather than what the children may want. Parents provide structure and boundaries for children to bump against.
According to Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, one of the ways that people express love is with words. If this is your preferred love language, then you need to hear the words spoken. While I agree there are times when it is important to say the words to the ones we love, I think sometimes the ease with which we use the term takes away from and cheapens what it’s all about. I much prefer love in action; love that shows itself in how we behave towards others more than any words we may profess.
In our reading from Isaiah, God is challenging Ahaz to put him to the test. Ask for a sign. Don’t be afraid to ask for something big! “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’” (7:10-11) Ahaz feigns piety and says he won’t put God to the test. “But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” (7:12)
The prophet sees through Ahaz’s empty words and responds, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” (7:13-14) Even though Ahaz is acting in an annoying fashion, trying God’s patience, God continues to act in a loving manner to Ahaz. God gave Ahaz the sign he refused to ask for. God gave him what he needed, despite his behavior.
Christianity has come to see this passage as prophesying the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. When God wanted to show his love for his people, he used actions, not just words. He chose to lower himself, shake off his Godliness, and become human. He wasn’t born in a temple; the Messiah wasn’t a ruler of this world, as expected by the Hebrew people, but the son of a simple carpenter. God gave them what they needed, not what they wanted or expected. God continues to give to us what we need. God continues to act in a loving manner even when we are far from loveable.
God’s cup of love overflows to all generations and all nations. Wishing all of you love in abundance this Christmas! “For God so loved the world . . .”