At the heart of the Christmas story is a love that is often overlooked—that between Mary and Joseph. This ordinary and extraordinary love story has much to teach us about living in love. And it reveals how learning to love, fully and courageously, can significantly change our world. Because when you change your inner world, everything changes in your outer world when if nothing changes.
Of course, the truth is that we never really master love. Rather, we are mastered by it. This podcast explores why it’s a good idea to give ourselves over to love and how we can do that in our daily lives and relationships. Because when we change our inner world, everything changes in our outer world even if nothing changes.
I have come to believe that most of us have a pretty complicated relationship with love. On the one hand, we tend to think of love in rather sentimental terms. We want our loves to be romantic in every sense of the word and framed in terms of our emotions. So when the emotions change, we believe that love has ended and we go looking elsewhere.
Then, on the other hand, we say that love is not a feeling but an act. We think of it in terms of what we do: our love is expressed in action without our hearts needing to be involved at all.
And then, if it’s possible to have a third hand, we expect love to wrap around us like a warm, cosy blanket. We want love that never demands anything of us or challenges us in any way. And we want to give and receive love on our own terms, without ever having to change or stretch ourselves for another.
Essentially, we want love to be tidy and easy and non-threatening. But that’s not at all how love works. Instead, it’s messy, complex and complicated, and it can very threatening indeed. But it is also the most wonderful, life-giving, and energising thing we can ever encounter.
The truth is that we never master love. It is beyond our capacity to control or tame. It is much more the case that those who seek to be lovers find that love masters them. Which is why so many prefer not to be lovers at all, choosing instead to connect with God, others, the world and even themselves only on the surface. But we will never find life in this safe and controlled form of love that isn’t really love at all.
So what is love? How do we give ourselves over to it? And why would we even want to entertain the thought of being mastered by love? Well, since Christmas is often thought of as the season of love, let’s go back to the Christmas story and the love that is often overlooked at the centre of it—the love between Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary. I’m reading from Matthew 1:18-25.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
Joseph was a devout Jewish man. He knew the law and clearly wanted to observe it as thoroughly and wholeheartedly as he could. But he was clearly deeply in love with Mary because to save her from being stoned as an adulterer, he had to break the law, in a sense. He chose not to report her pregnancy to the religious authorities, which he was supposed to do. And he took her as his wife, even though she was carrying a baby that was not his—which was pretty much unheard of in his time and culture. It seems to me that Joseph was completely mastered by love and willingly so.
In the biblical narrative, Mary is also totally mastered by love. She accepted her role as the mother of Jesus along with the questions, shame, and blow to her reputation that it would bring. And she willingly stayed by Joseph’s side, joining him on the trip to Bethlehem even though she was late in her pregnancy and probably would not have been required to go with him.
The love between Joseph and Mary was, in so many ways, an ordinary love story. It was filled with love that was both self-giving and driven by need and desire. It was erotic and unconditional. And as much as it was an ordinary love like that shared between so many lovers through the ages, it was also extraordinary in the levels of self-giving, care for the other, and willingness to sacrifice that it inspired. This was no shallow, safe love. It was deep, wild and fierce. And it changed the world.
I can’t pretend that love like this doesn’t frighten me. But it also calls to me. I can’t resist yielding to its power and immersing myself in its magic as much as I possibly can. I can’t imagine that there is anything that even comes close to feeling like life without this all-consuming, overwhelming, passionate—in all senses of that word—love. Along with life and death, love like this is one of the three primary forces that drive evolution forward into ever-increasing complexity and connectedness.
And in the light of that, I find myself seeking daily to be increasingly mastered by love. And here are a few thoughts on what motivates and helps me to give myself to great love as much as I can.
Theologically, one of my primary definitions of God comes from 1 John 4:8 which states that God IS love. Which means that the way to experience the Divine Presence in my life is to dive as deeply as I can into love. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that love pulses through everything. And so I can’t live fully, authentically, and courageously without love. I can’t know a meaningful and fulfilling life without love at its centre. As 1 Cor. 13 says, “Without love I am nothing…”
From an evolutionary perspective, love is one of the primary drivers of evolution as I’ve already noted. Love draws creatures together to procreate. Love empowers different species to coexist and collaborate for mutual benefit. Without love, there is no evolution, no creativity, no growth, no life. And to give myself to love is to participate actively and consciously in the process of evolution—both my own and that of the Cosmos.
Globally, we’ve tried for centuries to build a healthy world with power, dominance, war, and competition. It doesn’t work. It’s time to turn our efforts to love, collaboration, mutual care, and sharing of power and resources to address the great challenges of our world and create a safe, meaningful, and secure life for everyone and for the Earth and its creatures.
Relationally, there is no relationship without some kind of attraction, some force pulling us together. And that force is love—in many different forms and depths. But it is love. And when we relate to one another healthily and with genuine love, there is nothing that can enrich our lives, empower us to become our best selves, and give us meaning and fulfilment like love.
Personally, I used to always think love was what I had to give to others. But I have learned that I need to give love to myself too. And that it is also legitimate to need love and to want to feel loved and seen by my significant others. It is not noble to be the one who has no needs but always seeks to meet the needs of others, even though it may feel noble. Love is at its best, most creative, and most life-giving when it is shared in a mutually enriching relationship in which everyone involved gives and receives wholeheartedly.
Love is a choice. Yes, it comes with strong emotions, physical responses, desires, and longings. But ultimately we choose to live by love or by fear. One person will choose to reduce risk and manage fear through self-protection. Another will choose to embrace the risk and ignore the fear through self-giving. The choice is ours to make. But, for me, there is no other choice than to love as indiscriminately and passionately as possible. And to seek to learn to make the choice for love every day—because it really does change the world. Because when you change your inner world, everything changes in your outer world even if nothing changes.
Our next episode prepares us for Christmas Day and it will explore what it could mean for us to master incarnation in our own lives and relationships. Stay tuned for that!
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