Friday, November 28, 2014

Jesus Loves Me? That's Cute.

 Thanksgiving is over today and all of the sudden it’s Christmas. We barely have time to freeze the leftover 13 pounds of turkey meat before we’re assaulted with Mall Santas and the radio blaring “holiday carols” that have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. This season, after all, really is about Him; without His birth, there would be nothing except cold and snow at the end of December (unless you’re in Hawaii, where the temperature is currently 74 degrees. It’s -3 here in the frozen North).

When you truly think about it, Christmas without Jesus is sadly empty. The season becomes all about shopping, food, and putting up once again with the family you just escaped from during Thanksgiving dinner. You can’t walk down the street without seeing sparkly trees, Santa hats, or shivering souls ringing bells for the Salvation Army. Or hearing that God-awful “Christmas Shoes” song in 14 different stores (must be a conspiracy). Everything is glitter and candy-cane-coated and good cheer, and then WHAM! December 25, midnight, and it’s all over. The decorated trees end up on the curb with bits of tinsel still clinging to their dried-out needles. Stores can’t get rid of their holiday wares fast enough. And the radio starts playing Katy Perry again. Christmas is moe lepo—dead. But Christmas has been dead all along if it’s only about presents, avoiding in-laws, and that special smoked cheese that Trader Joe’s only sells in December.

Christmas is a big deal in my Italian household. We usually put our tree up around the first Sunday of Advent, and the cookie baking saga begins—dozens and dozens of them packed into every Tupperware bowl we can find to chill on the unheated front porch, or arranged on tacky paper plates to give to neighbors. Mom always buys the spiced gumdrops from Fleet Farm as accents. She also always tries to make the traditional Italian pizzelle cookies on our temperamental griddle, but they always end up burning and sticking (which I don’t mind—more for me). And every Sunday we light our Advent wreath with three purple candles and one pink one—one candle for each Sunday—and say a special prayer before eating dinner. 

For Christians and Catholics, Advent is a special time of waiting, sort of like Lent only much more cheerful. It’s not so much about the gifts and the cookies and the sales at Macys as it is about the coming of the Savior. So what, you say—Jesus came and went over two thousand years ago, and the world is still a terrible place. If Jesus was supposed to be the Savior, He failed—the spies on Mission: Impossible could have done a better job. And even I will admit that after our Christmas dinner, when we’re gathered around the little cake with candles on it and singing “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus,” I feel a little silly, a bit embarrassed, as if we are all pathetically pretending that Jesus’s birthday really is important, so important that we bake a little cake for Him even though He can’t even eat it. But I think He appreciates the gesture.

I’ve written before about how it seems that Jesus didn’t make the world any different—or better—by dying on the Cross. People still kill each other. There’s still abuse, rape, and sickness. People cheat, lie, steal, double-cross each other, and get away with it. Children are starving to death in India and Africa while children in America are dying of obesity and diabetes. And Jesus was supposed to save us from all this? Yeah, right. There’s only one word for this: FAIL.

There is a little story I read once that has stuck with me ever since, about a man who had the following words written on his tombstone:

“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser and realized the world would not change I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country: but it too seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years I settled on changing only my family and those closest to me, but alas they would have none of it. Now as I lay on my deathbed and I suddenly realize that if I had only changed myself first, then by example I could perhaps have changed my family, and from their inspiration and encouragement to me I would have been better able to help my country and from there I may even have been able to change the world.” (Taken from the tomb of a Bishop in Westminster Abbey 1100 A.D).

This is Jesus’s method of salvation. He doesn’t “save the whole world” by suddenly making everyone holy and good. He works on the individual, from the heart, little by little, building bridges of intimate relationships between each person and Himself. Jesus’s statement in the Gospels “As the Father has loved Me, so I love you” isn’t one of those warm, fuzzy, I-love-everybody-blanket-statements. That kind of love is shallow, and it isn’t enough. It isn’t the kind of love we are seeking. Engraved in the heart of every man and woman on this earth is the deep desire to be loved, intimately, by one person. And that is the kind of love that Jesus offers us.

When I was little, I was told in Sunday school (the few times I went) that “Jesus Loves Me.” I hate this phrase even to this day because it cheapens the love that Jesus actually has for us. I remember responding to that statement with something along the lines of “Well, Jesus loves everybody, even Hitler. So what?” We just can’t reduce Jesus’s love to a common commodity—it is so much more than that. 
Jesus loves me, huh? That's cute.
  I few weeks ago I watched Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, made in 1951. Brando plays Stanley, a loud, swaggering hombre who wears incredibly tight t-shirts and dominates the screen with his raw sexuality and near-abusive desire for his wife Stella. Stanley is not always a good guy (and you end up hating him in the end), but his love and desire for Stella is intriguing. He ravishes her. He devours her. He can’t live without her, sending up an animal-like wail of “STELLAAAAA!!!!” when she kicks him out of the house. Blanche, Stella’s older sister who has come to live with them, can’t understand why Stella keeps going back to Stanley and enduring his violent mood swings and fits of passion. But in a strange way, I could understand. Stella was wanted by Stanley. He wanted no one but her. He coveted her sexuality, he jealously guarded her body, he entirely consumed her. And when the credits finally rolled, I found myself being jealous of Stella, even though her husband doesn’t turn out to be such a peach in the end. 

Stanley and Blanche from Streetcar
 This is the way Jesus wants to love us. His love is not sterile or fluffy or something hidden in the dense pages of the Bible—it is as raw and real and passionate as the deepest desires of the human heart, and as fresh and new and different as a summer morning. Is this not the kind of love we crave deep in our hearts? Doesn’t Jesus know the very depth and fiber of our hearts? Why, then, would He offer us a cheap, one-size-fits-all, feel-good shizzle that leaves us empty and longing for something better?

Stella and Stanley from Streetcar
 One of the stories I love best about Jesus is a scene from the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. Jesus is sitting at the table with his 12 disciples and tells them, with great sorrow and distress, “One of you will betray me.” Imagine his anguish; these 12 men who have been at his side constantly for the past 3 years, whom he has guided and taught and admonished and given the power to heal and forgive sins, and yet one of them, Judas, has turned on Him, rejected His generosity and love, and only feels hate and anger towards Him. Jesus sees His passion looming before Him that He can tell no one about: the agony in the garden, sweating blood while His friends sleep in blissful ignorance; the betrayal of the damned Judas; the merciless scourging; the mockery of the crown of thorns; the excruciating asphyxiation and bleeding to death on the cross while His mother Mary watches the entire thing. What a burden, and Jesus has no one to share it with, no one who understands Him! 

The apostle John is sitting next to Him at the table, and seeing his sorrow, leans his head against Jesus’s chest, right over His heart. This is such a beautiful, simple gesture. Imagine being so close to Jesus. I love the picture below because it demonstrates this love so clearly. Jesus has a death grip on that man, holding him close even while the man holds the hammer and nails. Look closely at the man's face. He has surrendered, slumped all of his weight into Jesus's arms. His shirt is pulled up; he is naked and vulnerable, his arms hang loosely, his feet drag on the ground. Look at the position of Jesus's hands, gripping the man's chest, his shoulder. He's not letting go. 

It's a disturbing picture, a double-take picture, not the kind of image most people call to mind when they think of Jesus loving them. I first saw it during a retreat about 5 years ago when I was struggling with a particular sin and feeling completely lost, abandoned, and unlovable. I realized then how much I had been longing for Jesus to hold me like this. 

Sound like a cheap romance novel plot? Hardly. This is the real, raw love of Jesus for us, working internally, sanctifying us, satisfying us. Then, and only then, will we have the courage and the quiet strength to reach out to our families, then to our friends and neighborhood, then to our country, then to our world.

Jesus has given us a part in His mission of salvation. Our part involves accepting and totally depending on the very real love He longs to give us.

 Let Him in. Let Him love you.


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