God’s Lavish Love. . .Even for Those You Don’t Like
Lavish. This is the word that comes to mind as I read the beginning of a Christmas sermon preached by Saint Jerome (340-420 A.D.). God’s love is lavish. The manger—the clay trough for animals’ food where Mary lays Jesus—doesn’t just indicate that Jesus is the Bread of Life for his listeners, but that God’s Son cares for the needs of all creatures, even the cattle and sheep.
Lavish’s meaning is set in wealth. People who live lavishly are “extravagant” and given to the “luxurious.” The irony being, as I re-read Jerome’s sermon, that God’s lavish love pours itself out on all creatures, including those people with and without money. Jerome consoles his listeners that Mary and Joseph found “no room for them in the inn”: “The poor should take great comfort from this.”
Lavish is a metaphorical word taken from a concrete context to describe something else. It’s a sensory word. It evokes details to be seen and felt: smooth cream-based foods, gold-textured edgings, the naps of soft fabric the color of wine, notes raised on a variety of instruments of polished ivory and gleaming wood and brass. If this is lavish in its concrete sense, then I wish to see the multitude of details illustrating God’s lavishness from spiritual eyes.
My Advent meditation has become to recognize God’s lavish love surrounding me.
It began last weekend, as I observed a dozen men from our church show up at our door on Saturday morning to bag leaves, organize our garage, and winterize the house. Their actions were a lavish response to my husband, who has been suffering from a slow-healing broken arm and a downcast heart from a lack of employment.
That afternoon, I busied myself with quiet activities with my daughters for the first weekend that relatives weren’t in town since his injury. I read aloud adventures of the intrepid characters Claudia and Jamie in the book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. While listening, our kids built tiny dog sleds with LEGOS in the spirit of our first cold November day. At one point, I knelt in front of my husband in the recliner, where he is forced to rest, to look him in the eyes and remind him how grateful I was for our family—for the seemingly trivial opportunities to spend time with my kids by winding leftover yarn around canning rings to make Christmas ornaments.
But Advent is a penitential season, too.
My repentance is regarding my fatalism about other Christians. I’m discouraged by their demands on individuals that seem to go beyond God’s expectations. Their approach smacks of an approach to God that he is a God of scarcity—that they have to do more to make up for what he can’t. On social media they create political litmus tests without nuance for others to prove their faithfulness. Or a major church has a theme of its women being “all in” for its Bible studies. And I think, as a mom who works and comes home to care for her kids, how about a theme of “just showing up”?
They make me tired, and I am already tired by elements of my own life right now—like the mess of a house in which only one parent has full use of her arms to tidy the rooms and wipe down counters. I want to relish the snarkiness of mocking these people whose ideals go beyond God’s. It feels enlivening. It feels empowering when my own life has been hemmed in by financial loss and physical inability within our family.
And yet, by doing more than acknowledging my disappointment, by turning toward a relishing of pointing out others’ flaws, I’ve lost sight of God’s lavish love. Instead of recognizing the earthy details that reflect God’s love—Gerard Manley Hopkins prayed “Glory be to God for dappled things”—such as the roughness of wool yarn during a Saturday afternoon craft with my kids, my attention has turned. How do I repent: turn back?
I’m in a dialogue this Advent. “Show me, God, show me”—the joy in sharing vanilla cones with my husband before bed time, even if the floor of our family room is scattered with dirty cups, LEGOS, and kids’ jackets dropped in place. “Show me, show me”—even if someone has said something hard-nosed about proving one’s faith on Twitter. “Show them, show them.” Their trough is clay too, and just as needing to be filled with food that nurtures, lavishly overflowing to those near them.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.