Christmas Meditation: That's Amore
Editor's Note: We had our annual staff Christmas party last week. During each staff gathering, I am always reminded what an honor it is to be part of this global media ministry—the talented and committed staff, the brands that encourage and equip millions of Christian leaders, and the honor to do work that glorifies God. I would like to share one of the highlights from our party—a meditation from David Neff, Vice President for CT Initiative Development and formerly Editor in Chief of Christianity Today magazine.
There's a prayer that Episcopalians use during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Here's a condensed version of that prayer:
"Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light … that in the last day, when Christ shall come again … to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal."
That prayer is a paraphrase of a biblical exhortation. Romans 13:12: "The night is far spent, the day is at hand: Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light."
A couple of weeks back, our church secretary included that prayer in our congregation's weekly e-newsletter. But there was a slight hitch. Instead of typing "the armor of light," she wrote "the amor—A.M.O.R—of light."
As an editor who is always alert for typos I tut-tutted to myself. But almost immediately I saw a sacred pun rather than a mistake.
Amor is the Latin word for love, and it's the Spanish word for love. It is closely related to amour, the French word for love, and to amore, the Italian word for love—as we just heard Dean Martin sing. "That's amore."
Chances are you know at least one of those Romance language words for love.
As I reflected on the interplay between amor and armor, I thought first about Christ's victory over sin, death, and the devil. Although he could have called on the heavenly armies to wage war against the devil, he triumphed instead through love. And please note, the devil was not God's only enemy. Romans 5 reminds us that we, too, were his enemies.
Romans 5 says that God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Then, in a rhetorical parallelism that signals similar meaning, Paul substitutes "enemies" for "sinners" and "reconciliation" for "love." "[W]hile we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son."
In a great and holy irony, Christ made love his weapon. Some of the early fathers—Origen in particular—described Christ's triumph as a trick that traps Satan. Satan believes that if he can kill the Christ, he will have won the battle. Satan doesn't realize that the resurrecting love of God is stronger than death. In a kind of moral jujitsu, the Christ who loved us so, absorbs in his own body the hatred of the Enemy and all God's enemies and throws them off balance. He comes out the stronger for having taken the blows.
In our own time, Rene Girard has updated this notion. In Girard's version, God does not deceive Satan. Rather, Satan himself fails to credit the full extent of God's love and therefore falls into a trap of his own making. The Cross, then, as an expression of God's love, reveals Satan for the violent and evil being he really is.
What Origen said about the Cross as a trap for Satan sounds an awful lot like what C. S. Lewis wrote at the conclusion to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: that a deeper reality from before the dawn of time allowed Aslan to absorb the White Witch's violent hostility, and … well, let's listen to Lewis:
"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards. …" (pp. 159-160)
Obviously, the "magic deeper still," which was from before the dawn of time, only worked because of Aslan's love for Edmund, because of the righteous victim's love for the treasonous traitor. That love was from the beginning, from before the dawn of time.
If love is Christ's weapon in the war on sin, death, and the devil, it is not an afterthought or a last-minute add-on at the Cross. Not only did Christ's love permeate his ministry and his teaching, it is central to the Incarnation, and God's eternal plan for rescuing a traitorous world has love at its core. Indeed, love was the source of the Son's eternal being.
Perhaps you know the ancient Christmas chant that begins, "Of the Father's love begotten, ere the worlds began to be." That is the earliest Nativity hymn I know of, with the possible exception of a very weird passage from the Odes of Solomon, which we'll have to leave for another time (Canto XIX). "Of the Father's Love Begotten" dates from around the year 400 and was written in Spain by the Latin poet Prudentius. A literal translation of that hymn would begin, "Born out of the parent's heart ["heart" being a metaphor for love] before the prologue of the world." The hymn goes on to emphasize the eternal nature of the Son's generation by means of the Father's love. Then it talks about how Christ achieved our salvation by taking on our "decaying" flesh, as St. Athanasius had said half a century earlier, "He became as we are that we might become as he is." If Christ is the eternal Word, you see, he comes before the prologue of the divine speech that brings forth this world.
When we think of spiritual warfare, we often refer to the gospel armor of Ephesians 6 – the belt of truth, the breastplate of justice, the shoes that are the readiness given by the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. Charles Wesley wrote one of his hymns as a riff on that passage: "Soldiers of Christ, Arise and Put Your Armor On."
Even in that military context, Wesley understood that the ultimate weapon was Christ's love. Charles often wrote too many stanzas for his hymns, and thus hymnal editors who don't want to wear out the patience of the saints drop some of them. In Wesley's original, after commending the various elements of the Gospel Armor, he draws on Romans 8. Our ultimate protection is not any of these pieces of armor, but the love of Christ. So he begins one verse: "Jesus hath died for you! What can His love withstand?" The obvious answer is that nothing can withstand his love. His love is irresistible.
So, as we sing our Christmas carols this season—"Silent night," we sing, "Son of God, love's pure light"— let's remember that what drives the Incarnation and indeed fuels all of Christ's existence is divine love, the secret weapon from before the dawn of time.
Now, that's amore!