About ten or so Christmases ago, I worked as a San Francisco hospital chaplain and was called in to see a young man who apparently needed to get his affairs in order. He was dying of AIDS, a disease that had hit the headlines in that neighborhood twenty or so years earlier but by now was just another horrible way to leave this life.
As I entered the room, the shadow of a man who lay there was betrayed by beautiful photographs of times past, looking hearty and young, and surrounded by the family that now with some trepidation approached his deathbed. As we settled into our visit, he let me know that what he really needed was for me to help his mother see that this was the end, and that he needed her to help manage the sale of his car, and distribute his clothes and music collection and so on. His face was so thin that his cheekbones protruded and his lips pursed as he spoke. Surely these were the last days.
And then, his mother came in, quietly and gently. He looked at me, and began to rehearse with her the litany of instructions he needed to get off his chest. His mother simply sat, holding his hand. When he had finally finished all that he had to say, his mother cupped his head in her hand and said to him, ‘You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I love you’, and the cares of the world that had laid heavily upon his shoulders, melted away.
‘You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I love you’. Might Mary also have spoken thus?
True love, the love that is born before the beginning of time, is a gift that can only ever give itself away and the more we try our best to capture it, to hold onto it tightly, the more it evades our grasp. During her lifetime, Mother Teresa used to face criticism for her work among the dying poor from people who said she should have done more to combat the reasons why people end up in such abject poverty in the first place. Her response to such criticism was simple: we choose to offer those who are dying some final days and weeks of dignity and love, to remind them that they too are children of God. The gift of love that we offer is a fleeting gift as is the gift of life.
Every year, members of our church go out into Pacific Beach on the Thursday night before Christmas Eve to sing carols in the bars. Despite the fact that all we bring with us to give away are some candy canes and a carol or two, not everyone wants to welcome us in. Some are burned out on religion – ‘I don’t need to hear that kind of %$#& man’; others don’t want to scare away the customers – ‘Have you tried Mission Boulevard?’; others just don’t have room in the inn – ‘You need to make an appointment’. Others are more welcoming: some find it quaint, others ask if we take requests and then film us on their cell phones, and others still sing along loudly, arms swaying in the air. Yet, there are others still, for whom someone else is present with us, whose love had once touched their lives, like the 30-something woman who lingered, asking for ‘just one more’ carol, who stared and stared at us as we sang; or like the homeless man sprawled out on Garnet, like a soul washed up by the last tide.
Do they remember the last time they heard the words, ‘I love you’? Do you? The story of a babe in a manger, God and child, almighty king and vulnerable newborn, is not a sentimental tale that wishes the world were more kind and caring. God’s good news to us in Jesus is not a hallmark card gospel, it is the story of love that takes loss and pain seriously. It is light in the darkness. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.’
So what about you? Are you with Mary? Are you with the mother of the dying AIDS patient, willing to let go of the most beautiful thing in the world? Are you with Teresa of Kolkata, who believed that no one is beyond the redeeming power of love’s last light? Are you with the carolers on the sidewalks and alleyways of this city’s streets, willing to say to those whose path is darkened, ‘I love you’?
In other words, my brothers and sisters, when all of the songs have been sung, and the presents opened; all the mulled wine drunk and Christmas cheer spread to those near and dear, will you remember the young mother, Mary, who was willing to give herself away to a love that one day she would lose? Will you love with such a love? For only one love is needed to let the light of Christ shine in the darkness; yours.