Research assistants Timothy and Thomas waiting for results of their word search.

If you search for the word “love” in the Bible you’ll find that it appears more than 700 times in both Old and New Testaments. As is the case in modern English usage, in the Scriptures the word “love” can refer to a broad range of emotions: parental love, obedient love, romantic love, hospitable love, even love of a special food! But there is one type of love that appears as a continuous thread throughout the Scriptures, and is the foundation for how we should understand and live in love. That type is God’s love for all of his creation.

Because God existed before all creation, and because God’s nature is love, love was present in creation from the beginning. You could say that love was designed into creation. We are told in the creation account in Genesis 1 that humankind was made “in God’s image,” and therefore has the capacity to love because God’s very essence is love (1 John 4:7-21).

Our response to God’s love for us and for all of creation must be to love God and all of creation in return. Love begets love. We learn to love in receiving love, from human beings and from God, and that love inspires and motivates us to share love with others.

Looking ahead to the celebration of the birth of God’s Son, we see many examples of the depth and richness of love in the characters of the familiar story:

• Elderly Zechariah, a priest of Israel, and his wife Elizabeth loved God so much that they trusted in his promise to give them a son after many years of infertility. That son turned out to be John the Baptist, the forerunner of Messiah.
• Joseph loved Mary, his fiancee, so much that he risked ridicule from family and friends for her pregnancy before marriage. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph also demonstrated love by taking the family to Egypt to escape the infanticide perpetrated by jealous king Herod.
• The shepherds on the Judean hillside loved God so much that they risked leaving the sheep in their charge to be the first witnesses to the birth of the infant Son of God.
• Mary loved God greatly and trusted in his love for her completely. She agreed readily to the assignment communicated to her by the angel Gabriel, giving thanks and praise to God in what had to have been one of the most frightening moments of her young life. She loved and supported her son Jesus throughout his childhood and into adulthood, in his ministry and ultimately at his shameful death. Throughout the centuries Mary has been revered by Christians as a model of obedience and purity of heart, expressions of her deep love of and for God.

All of these people were committed and steadfast; all put their love for God ahead of human commitments, taking risks as a result; and all believed what God’s messengers told them even when it sounded wildly preposterous. They all illustrate another fundamental quality of God’s love that we must be sure not to overlook: selflessness.

Zechariah selflessly devoted himself to caring for his wife and bringing up his son to be the new prophet of the Messiah. Joseph selflessly thought about Mary’s possible disgrace more than his reputation as he considered what course of action to take after learning of the pregnancy, then put aside returning home in order to preserve the life of the infant Jesus. The shepherds selflessly ran to Bethlehem at receiving the angels’ news of God come to earth. And Mary selflessly offered her whole life to the unfolding of God’s plan.

The ultimate model of selfless love is Jesus himself. The hymn that I think best captures the selfless sacrifice and profound gift of Christ is In the Bleak Midwinter. The words by English poet Christina Rossetti were set to a simple and somewhat melancholy tune, Cranham, by Gustav Holst in 1906. You can view a performance by the King’s College Choir on YouTube below:

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him –
Give my heart.