This Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Advent. This week we light the candle of love.
I never expected Love to be the hardest for me to write about! I worked on another post yesterday about Love, but I feel like it is all stuff I've said before. So here is attempt #2.
Did you know that the ancient Greeks described six forms of love? Storge is familial love. Philia is platonic love. Eros is romantic love. Philautia is love of the self, and Xenia is love of guests. Divine love is Agape.
Last night as I was driving home from being with Parker, I was pondering love and what it means. I thought of the different kinds of love - but I admit I only knew about eros and agape. I knew there was another but I didn't have the right word for it. Turns out there are more. I don't know if I am using the words correctly so if anyone is an expert in ancient Greek you may correct me, but gently. I want to explore how much love we find in the birth narrative of Jesus.
There is a lot, so let's unpack it. You could put these in any order, so please don't assign any significance when I say "first," or "next." I'm writing as they occur to me. And once you have read this blog post, go to the Bible and find other examples.
First, lets look for evidence of storge, or familial love. All you have to do is imagine Mary, holding her tiny baby, putting her finger in his, kissing his forehead, nursing him, rocking him and singing a lullaby. That is all the evidence you need of storge in this story, but there is more.
I think Mary's parents probably cared for her enough to make a good match for her, in Joseph. Joseph absolutely demonstrated storge when he obeyed the angel and took Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod (Matthew 2:13-15).
One great example of storge is the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. After Mary became pregnant she went to spend time with her cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1: 39-45). Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist. As soon as Mary arrived and greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaimed that the child in her womb "leaped for joy." Elizabeth was glad to see her cousin, and John, apparently, recognized his even though neither was born yet. I imagine the two women sharing family stories, comparing their pregnancies and making baby clothes. Elizabeth, being older and further along in her pregnancy may have reassured Mary about what to expect. This is all storge.
Once Elizabeth's baby was born, Luke says her "neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her." (Luke 1:57-58.). At the naming and circumcision ceremony on the eighth day, everyone assumed the baby would be named Zechariah, but Elizabeth said he would be named John. People argued with her and looked to Zechariah to contradict her. Zechariah couldn't speak because he hadn't believed the angel who came to announce that there would be a baby, so he asked for something to write on and confirmed that the baby would be called John. "Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea." (Luke 1:64-65)
The relatives rejoiced. That is storge. The neighbors rejoiced, and that is philia.
Lets look at philia, or platonic love, because there is plenty of that, too.
First, of course, there are the neighbors of John and Elizabeth. We can assume that there was a celebration of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, too.
Remember those shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks? (Luke 2:8). I can't think of anything more boring than watching a bunch of sheep all night, so I imagine they passed the time telling stories, jokes, and teasing each other. They would have become friends, and while there is always one who irritates everyone, they would have cared for him, too. The sheep weren't the only creatures in danger at night, I think, so the shepherds were also protecting each other. Shepherds were not well regarded at that time - they were dirty and smelly and spent their time with sheep. But after they saw the baby in the manger they gloried and praised God and told everyone what they had seen. "And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them." (Luke 2:18). Philia - people respected the shepherds enough to believe them.
Now let's look for eros, probably the most controversial because we put our modern sensibilities to it.
First, there is the love between Mary and Joseph. In our modern culture we would assign eros to them. They were engaged to be married, and in our world that means passionate love with a good measure of lust thrown in. I think we have to assign this type of love because so many of our traditions require that Mary is a virgin. Whether you believe in the virgin birth or not, Mary was certainly a young woman and was probably inexperienced in the ways of sex. We have applied our puritanical views on sex (sinful, dirty, shameful, etc) to Mary, and if she is the mother of our Lord, she can't be any of those things so she must be a virgin. My problem with this is that our sexuality is a gift from God, meant to be used and enjoyed in the right context. Nonconsensual or coercive sex is definitely sinful, but what if Mary and Joseph were truly in love? Some traditions say Mary was a perpetual virgin and their marriage was never consummated. Why did she have to be celibate for her entire life? I don't like this understanding myself, though I do believe in the virgin birth. For Jesus to be fully human, he had to start life as an infant, and since we know storks don't really drop babies down the chimney, how else was he going to get here? There had to be a woman. For him to be fully divine and the son of God, there couldn't really be a man involved. That is how I make sense of it, anyway.
Back to Mary and Joseph. I assume from the little I know of Biblical history that their betrothal was very likely arranged, and the two may not have known each other all that well. Perhaps there was "like," and hopefully more than just relief that neither disgusted the other. I have read recently that because they were betrothed, Mary was living in Joseph's home, though they didn't sleep together until their actual wedding. Again, probably not like today - I imagine Joseph's parents and a variety of siblings might have lived there, too. How much time did Mary and Joseph have to get to know each other? How much eros passed between them? We can't know.
Then there are Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke says they had no children because Elizabeth was barren (they always blame the woman!) and they were getting on in years. But after the angel visited Zechariah and told him there would be a baby and Zechariah was rendered mute because he didn't believe the angel, Elizabeth conceived. Imagine that for a moment. I picture him coming up behind Elizabeth and kissing her neck, or signaling to her in whatever way they had devised over the years, and she blushed and was shocked to find he still wanted her. And after all those years, they had sex, because John was not immaculately conceived. Eros.
This story even has sex in it!
Philautia (love of self) is one of the hardest, I think. So many of us love others but when it comes to loving ourselves, not so much. But lets look at Mary's song.
When Mary arrived at Elizabeth's house, Elizabeth called her blessed among women. Mary didn't demur, or complain about how she can't be blessed carrying this huge stomach around, or say that if she was truly blessed she'd be rich and married by now. No. Mary sang,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the
lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-48)
Mary recognizes her value to her God. If God loves her, then Mary loves herself, too.
Elizabeth also believed that God loved her. Luke 1:25: "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." The disgrace was her failure to conceive, and now she rejoices because she can regain her rightful place in her community.
Joseph must have had a fair bit of philautia to not divorce Mary, quietly or otherwise. Can you imagine what his friends and relatives had to say when her pregnancy became known? It was his right to have her put to death, but he was a righteous man and didn't want to disgrace her. Once the angel visited him and explained Mary's pregnancy (Matthew 1:19-21) he took Mary as his wife. I'm guessing his mother had some choice words for her - it doesn't say that an angel visited her! He cared enough about himself to be true to who he understood himself to be, and the entire world was changed because of it.
Xenia is the love of guests. Sure, Elizabeth welcomed Mary. That is xenia. But let's take a look at the inn keeper.
The story is that Caesar Augustus, the emperor, decided to do a census and made everyone return to his hometown to be registered. Joseph was from Bethlehem, so off to Bethlehem he and Mary went, along with everyone else who had ever been born in and left there. Think of it as football weekend at Penn State. There was no room (if you aren't from Pennsylvania you can imagine any other big university football program - no parking, no lodging, and that is not the weekend to visit if you aren't a football fan). So the inn keeper tells them to stay in the stable.
Now, Hebrew tradition held hospitality in very high regard. Today if someone we don't know knocks on the door we don't let them in. But then - well read Genesis 19 for a story of extreme hospitality and I'll just leave it at that. So for the inn keeper to turn away weary travelers, and a laboring woman at that, was unheard of.
I have heard recently that the stables at that time were actually attached to the houses. So there may not have been a bed or a room at the house, and offering the stable wasn't ideal but was an acceptable solution to a bad situation. Once the women in the house knew that Mary was in labor, they would have come running to support her and midwife the baby. No where does it say that the inn keeper waived the rent - there wouldn't have been any. The inn keeper may well have been a relative of Joseph's, and the inn his home. That is xenia.
Storge, philia, eros, philautia, and xenia. All great loves, and all show up in the birth narrative. But there is one more, the one that encompasses all the others. Agape.
For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16). The angels brought good news of great joy. Into a world of hostility, oppression, poverty and power, God sent a baby. A baby who would grow to be a man, experiencing all the things that humankind experiences - sickness, skinned knees, grief, perhaps a broken heart, joy, laughter, and love. And when he had demonstrated his humanness, God called him to begin his ministry, to share God's great love with the world - a love that led him to hang on a cross. For no greater love has a person that this, that one lays down one's life for a friend (John 15:13). Agape: divine love.
This Christmas, can we try to experience and embody all the different kinds of love? Perhaps not eros, if one doesn't have a romantic partner, but surely all the others. Share storge with your family - call them, write them, make their favorite cookies. If you can't be physically present with each other, how can you show your love? Same with philia, but let's extend that to those we don't know - the poor, the incarcerated, the ill, the grieving, the immigrant, those of different races and religions. Give yourself some philautia - God loves you so grab hold of that and don't let go, and try to love yourself. Make yourself a cup of tea, take a long bubble bath, go for a walk, read a trashy novel - do whatever you want to do. Tell yourself over and over that you are loved, because you are. Xenia might be a little tough this year with COVID and social distancing, but when you do go out, share a smile - with your eyes, of course, since you'll be wearing a mask. Wish people a merry Christmas or, yes, a happy holidays.
And remember agape. Share it, hold it, embrace it. Agape. God created each one of these loves, and God loves you with a never ending love. God will never leave or abandon you. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:6-8).
The story of great love is more a story of love than I realized. This brings me hope - hope that love will prevail. It brings me peace, because our world is truly loved. It brings me joy - God loves me!
For the angel said to them, 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. (Luke 2:10-11). We are redeemed, because God loves us.
Love image. OIP.kxSabO8mijDVHfmebOV5DAAAAA (404×290) (bing.com) Accessed online 12/18/2020.
Wikipedia contributors. "Love." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Dec. 2020. Web. 19 Dec. 2020.