In this week’s epistle, St. Paul addresses the saints: “To all God’s beloved in Rome… Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Episcopal Church’s framework for racial reconciliation, borrowing a phrase from Dr. King, addresses the possibility that we actually can become Beloved Community. And St. John the Evangelist – whose gospel many of us will read in-depth as part of the Good Book Club this Epiphany – writes in 1 John, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
One of my great fears as a communicator is that we overuse “love” as a Church – not that we’re loving too much (no, there’s always room for more of that), but rather that our commitment to telling out God’s love for this world and our (sometimes-taxing) work of loving each other gets conflated with a saccharine, florid caricature. To the world, “love” can sound like politeness, a laissez-faire attitude, a greeting card sentimentality. Those aren’t always bad things in themselves, but they’re surely not what St. Paul, St. John, and Dr. King meant in describing love or us. “To all God’s polite people in Rome…” certainly doesn’t have the same ring.
What then do they mean beloved? I would say this: they are reaching out to the basis of our being and primary identity as creatures made in the image of God. You are called “beloved” not because you are more special than your neighbor, not because you first loved God and are doing good work, but because the One who formed the Pleiades and Orion, who set the planets in their courses, and who whispered your name one day, just like he whispered mine – you are of inestimable worth because this One loves you.
Tonight, make a special intention – when you’re arguing with family on the way to church, when you’re feeling lonely, when you’ve burnt the ham, and when the water heater is on the fritz – to remember that this night is not about being perfect. It’s not about your successes this year. It’s not even “all about family,” as many a holiday movie will moralize before a sugary pop rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy”. Rather, this night is about encountering the living God in the manger, the one who knows you as Beloved.