“God so loved the world.” (Jn. 3:16) Christians are so accustomed to hearing this, it is so much a part of the remnant of Christian culture, that it is difficult to appreciate why God had to reveal it. In fact, in the ancient world, to contend that God loves His creatures was considered such an absurdity that simply to point out that this is the Christian claim was considered a sufficient argument against Christianity. Whoever God is, the argument went, He cannot expect us to believe in absurdities, and to say that He actually loves people is the height of absurdity. It is an affront to reason. For its detractors, Christianity’s claim about God’s love for people was an impediment to giving it any serious consideration.
In our age, the scandal of the ancient pagan world over the claim that God loves His creatures takes a new form. Even if the claim may be true, so the worldly-wise reason, what difference does God’s love make? What person of intellectual integrity can take this claim seriously, when there is so much evil and suffering? Did 2,000 years of faith in this love prevent two world wars, the holocaust, countless other wars and genocides, and innumerable crimes against human dignity? Today the claim about God’s love is simply dismissed as irrelevant.
Of course, this dismissal of Christian faith in the God of love is readily countered by historical realities. To take one example: Franciszek Gajowniczek, the prisoner in Auschwitz for whose life St. Maximilian Kolbe exchanged his own, certainly realized that faith in God’s love takes on concrete, historical relevance. In the midst the suffocating darkness of Nazi hatred shone the life-giving light of Christian love. It changed the personal history of Franciszek Gajowniczek as dramatically as Jesus’ healing of the blind, the lame, and lepers, or more a propos, His raising back to life the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the brother of Martha and Mary.
A star shone over Nazareth to signify that the light of God’s love had entered a world of darkness, that is, a world of blindness, a world in which men are unable to see how rightly to live, a world ignorant of the truth that God is love. This darkness can neither understand nor extinguish the heavenly light of divine love: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5) There was no star shining over Auschwitz, but there was a star shining within it. Conformed to the image of Jesus, St. Maximilian Kolbe witnessed to the divine love that does not withdraw, does not cease to love, even when it is rejected. No darkness can overpower this light.
With a directness that has many reeling, Pope Francis has been challenging every disciple of Christ to make the light of Christmas faith in God’s love shine in the world. While every age will have its abysses of darkness, like Auschwitz, and the extraordinary lights of a St. Maximilian Kolbe, most are called to bring the light of the star of Bethlehem into spheres of life where the night may not be so deep: to act as peacemakers at the first sign of antagonism; to witness to hope when people are ready to give up on life. Pope Francis is especially attentive to the darkness of a world that neglects the poor. Only the absence of the light of God’s love in those who claim to know Him could explain this. If the world should be devoid of such rays of heavenly light, then it is perfectly understandable that the ancient argument should return in our own time: What value does Christmas have, of what significance to us is a God Whose love does not change the human condition? Without the witness of Christian love and solicitude for the poor, it appears that darkness has triumphed over the light.
Christmas is the celebration of the entrance into the world of the inextinguishable light of divine love. Our witness to it depends entirely on having a right understanding of it. It is one thing to light up our houses and our trees in imitation of the star of Bethlehem. It is quite another to have souls aglow with a faith that can become acts of light in a world of darkness. So, let us ask: What does it mean for God to love us? What does it mean for Him to draw close to us by becoming a man?
If we reflect on our own experience, we will realize that we draw close to others for one of two reasons. Either we seek others out because we are in need and we perceive that they can satisfy that need, or we seek them out because we have something to share with them. These are the two loves, the love of need and the love of fullness, about which Pope Benedict catechized us in his first encyclical: Deus caritas est. Corresponding to each of these loves is a loneliness in which one is trapped when no one can be found. There is the solitude of need, when a person’s need to be loved remains unfulfilled. Then there is the solitude of abundance, when a person cannot find someone with whom to share the joy of life.
God loves us out of His love of infinite abundance. What was it that moved the divine freedom in favor of creation? Can we imagine that eternal moment of decision (and of course, if we can imagine it then it must fall far short of the reality itself) when God confronted the implications of His own infinite goodness and beatitude, and acquiesced to the logic of the diffusive power of this goodness, and chose to create us in His own image solely for the purpose that we might participate in His own blessed life? God is “an eternal exchange of love.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 221) The only desire the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for us is that we participate in Their own unending joy. This is Heaven. Only after Jesus reveals this to us can we enter into the prayer He taught us: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
It is clear, then, that out of His superabundant goodness and love, God does not want to be alone. The Nativity confirms for us how serious He is about this. Not only does God not withdraw from us when we sin and reject His self-giving love; sin is the occasion for Him to draw even closer. God does not want to be alone in enjoying His own blessedness. His original decision to share it by creating us in His image is ratified anew by His decision to become incarnate in order to save us from the darkness of life without His love, a life of non-participation in His beatitude. We might be tempted to say that it is as if the infinite perfection of His love of abundance is so great that it becomes in Him a love of need, that He acts as if He needs us.
This is the precise point at which we must catch ourselves, defeat the temptation, and realize that such reasoning is nothing more than a projection onto God of our own deficient experience and understanding of love. In a world of darkness, can there be any such thing as totally other-oriented love? We find it difficult to avoid assuming that there must be some benefit to the one who loves that is driving his love. This is because we are accustomed to being enticed to do good things by the lure of rewards, and we realize that this is a very effective way to get people to engage in acts of love for others.
Underlying this is the inclination to think that the most intense and reliable love is self-love. In the end, is anyone as committed to my happiness as I am? This is precisely the insinuation made by the prince of darkness in the Garden of Eden. He is prince of darkness because he is the father of lies. The lie about God’s love in the garden is the progenitor of every lie, and the result is that men live in darkness because without believing in God’s love they now have no light but their own to illumine the path of life, and this light is not at all bright. The world is made dark because of the absence of faith in God’s love. So, we do not expect to encounter anyone who loves us more than we love ourselves. But this is precisely why the perfection of love must be revealed to us. God does not become man in order to fill any void in His own eternal blessedness. It is exclusively and entirely a love of superabundance. He loves us for our own sake, period. His only intention is that we enter into His overflowing joy.
The logic of divine love is most luminous in the Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate in close proximity to Christmas. For Mary, this unrepeatable grace of being conceived without sin is wholly directed to her divine motherhood; it was given to prepare her for her role of mother of God’s only begotten Son. It is traditional apologetics to say that it is highly fitting that the woman who would carry and give birth to the Son of God, Who is all-holy, should herself be free of sin. What precisely is the nature of this fittingness?
The key lies in the very nature of love, which since Vatican II and thanks largely to Blessed Pope John Paul II we have come to define in terms of the giving of oneself: Made in God’s image, the human person can only “find himself in the sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et spes, n. 24) Even at the biological level, motherhood profoundly fulfills this understanding of love, and Pope John Paul invited us to see this physical self-giving as pointing to the corresponding spiritual reality of a mother’s self-giving love. “A lover’s first gift is his own heart.” (John of St. Thomas) The first gift received by every infant should be the heart of the infant’s mother. Being conceived without sin, Mary is able perfectly to fulfill this vocation to self-giving love that defines motherhood.
Precisely this consideration of self-giving love links the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception with the Incarnation of the Son of God. She was conceived without sin. Sin is anti-love. It “sets itself against God’s love for us” (CCC, n. 1850); it is the “rejection of the gift and the love” of God. (Dominum et Vivificantem, nn. 35, 39) Sin is rooted in a distortion of the truth about God, so that rather than to believe that He is entirely committed to our fulfillment and happiness, man, tempted by the devil, comes to doubt God’s love, to be suspicious of it. (CCC, n. 399; Dominum et Vivificantem, n. 37) Thinking that God is not for man, man must be for himself. So he takes his life and his fulfillment into his own hands.
Blessed Pope John Paul II told us that Mary’s faith is the undoing of the dark suspicion about God’s love. She knows Him as the Almighty Who is the source of all gifts and does great things for those He loves. (Redemptoris Mater, n. 36) Mary is the first “to believe in the love God has for us.” (I Jn. 4:16) The integrity and beauty of her very being testifies to this love. She would deny herself if she denied God’s love. For her to be conceived without sin means that she was filled with love, totally receptive to every communication of love from God, and wholly responsive to God’s gift of self with her own gift of self. If her Son is the only One Who “fully satisfies the Father’s love” (Redemptor hominis, n. 9) by receiving everything the Father has to give, His very Self, Mary nonetheless satisfies this same love to the fullest potential of her human nature. By her unique grace Mary participates in the “eternal exchange of love” (CCC, n. 221) that is the mystery of Trinitarian Life. There is nothing in her that can resist God’s approach as He draws near to her. She is pure receptivity to His love; her entire being is an incessant welcome to God’s gift of Himself. She brings to perfection the spirituality of hospitality.
What would life as a man have been like for the eternal Word without Mary’s perfect receptivity to His love? We know that man, made in God’s image and likeness, “cannot live without love” (Redemptor hominis, n. 10), and that he can only “find himself in the sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et spes, n. 24) If this is true of all human persons, it is true of the Word Incarnate, the perfect man, in a pre-eminent way. Without Mary, Jesus would be thrust into a condition of solitude, plunged into the loneliness of abundance, because there would be no one to whom He could give Himself fully. The Father willed that His Son should never know such a moment. Mary is the one the Father chose to make it possible for Jesus to be fully human with respect to the vocation to total mutual self-giving love. Without Mary, Jesus could not live and express His divine life of total mutual self-giving love. It was necessary, then, that there be another human person capable of giving herself to Him and receiving His self-gift.
This is foreshadowed “in the beginning,” when Adam receives the gift of Eve, without whom he cannot fully experience his own being as “image” of Self-Giving Love. From the beginning, God intended this for Adam, and thus from the beginning He intended to create Eve. Similarly, the New Adam is not complete in His experience of human nature without the new Eve, who makes it possible for Him to give Himself as a man and to receive the gift of another human person. The grace of the Immaculate Conception is a redemptive grace won by Christ on the Cross, where the New Adam opened His side to create another with whom He could experience the Trinitarian mutual self-giving of eternal love. That “other,” we know, is the Church, and Mary is her model, type, and personification.
Mary is the Star of the New Evangelization. In her, and in the Church’s faith, in all the acts of love for the poor that have their origin in the birth of our Savior, the light of Bethlehem, the light of the truth that God is love, shines ever anew in a world of darkness.
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L., is Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, where he holds the Blessed John Paul II the Great Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization.
Denver Catholic Register file photo: Our Lady of the New Advent