Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will among people.
– Luke 2: 14
Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem….On entering the house,
they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and
paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
– Matthew 2: 1, 11-12.
It is love alone that counts.
– St. Thérèse of Lisieux
I have two favorite feast days within the Christian liturgical year. One is Holy Thursday, which commemorates the last night Jesus spent with his community before his death. The other is the feast of Epiphany. It is the feast on which we hear the story of the “wise men,” who traveled from the East, following a star, to find the infant Jesus.
The reason these two feasts stand out for me from all the others is because I see them as not about the miraculous actions of a distant (“in the highest heaven”) God, but about simple, profound, every-day expressions of love in which we all can and are called to engage.
On the first Holy Thursday, according to the Gospel story, Jesus washed the feet of his companions, and when finished he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13: 13-14). For me, the intimate act of washing feet in this story symbolizes all the small ways we are to show our love and reverence for one another.
On the feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate God’s love made manifest in the coming of Jesus, but also the love of three strangers moved to seek out and extend themselves toward another who represents for them a potential future in which they can only hope and believe. They express what they feel and believe through the giving of gifts.
I remember when I first realized that love needs to be – must be – expressed, as it is in these two stories. It is not enough to feel love, or even to say, “I love you.” There must be some action, some gift giving, to make it truly visible and truly real. It was an important insight for me to realize that love ought to show itself in small every day things, as often and whenever possible. I am not talking huge, grand gestures here. Mother Theresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
I also remember the day I read the quote by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who said that it is “love alone” that counts for anything in life. At the time, I had recently been reconciled with a friend from whom I was estranged in a painful way for about 10 years. A significant realization for me at the time was that the love that we had shared before the separation was still there. It had lived of its own accord despite the miles and years that had separated us. It was my first inkling of the power and reality of love.
I remember, too, the Epiphany when I first said to a new friend, “I would like to give you this gift. I want it on this day to show you that I love you, in a concrete way, so that you know it is more than just words.”
There is something else about gift giving important to me. I believe that gift giving is not easy. If done right, it means spending time thinking about who the other person is and what he or she would like to receive. It is not about giving something that I would like to give (or get). It means stepping out of my own flesh, and really connecting with someone else, with her or his hopes, desires, needs, and expectations, and with the journey of their lives.
The “wise men” from the East did this for Jesus. They gave him gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. I read recently that these gifts symbolize power, wealth, and death. When I read that, I thought of the Scripture story about the temptations Jesus went through in the desert before he began his ministry. In response to these temptations, Jesus says “No” to power and authority, to having his desires and needs met, and also to being freed miraculously from death. Perhaps as Jesus grew older, he pondered the meaning of the gifts of the wise men, until, when the time of temptation came, he fully understood their significance.
My life experiences also have taught me that love, and its gift-giving, must be unconditional. Many years ago when I was on retreat at a place I had never been before nor have I visited since, a book from its library shelves found me. It was I Believe in Love by Pére Jean du Coeur de Jesus D’Elbée. It was through reading this book, which came close upon my own healing experience of the power of love, that I began to realize that love is something larger and more infinite than my own choices and decisions can control.
I still have my handwritten notes from the book. They begin with excerpts from what the author had to say about unconditional love. First, I noted, our love must ask “only that its existence be accepted”; it must be “freely given, asking only to be freely received.”
I recall that as I read on, I was shocked to realize that the demands of love went even further than freedom. I wrote in my notes that unconditional love is “Love given in spite of past sins and with the knowledge of future transgressions.” There’s the zinger: “with the knowledge of future transgressions.” We do not love with an expectation that the loved one will be perfect. We do not forgive with the expectation that we will not experience injury again, and again. We love in full knowledge of the cost, “without reservation,” as my notes conclude. It occurs to me that in this way, unconditional love also brings peace. In this sense, the peace of which the angels sang on Christmas is not the absence of injury or conflict, but the courage to continue to love unconditionally, to stay on the path that leads to the other side of injury or conflict.
For Christians, this season of Christmas and Epiphany now comes to a close, and we return to ordinary time. I am glad to have spent this season reminded of the lessons of love and peace that my own spiritual tradition, as well as others, holds.
If you have an experience or insight from the season that you would like to share, please feel free to do so using the reply function below.
May your life bring you opportunities to share and receive many gifts of love!