The King’s Criteria In the rhythm of this getting-back-to-normal after the long Thanksgiving holiday, if we glance up we see that Advent is just ahead. And while Thanksgiving can often bring many blessings as we enjoy time together, oftentimes relationship challenges surface as well. We speak of Advent as a time to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ Child once again. How often do we concern ourselves with preparing our relationships for His coming?
Yesterday’s gospel of the separation of the sheep from the goats is a familiar one (see here). Yet I heard something new in the homily yesterday that made me see it in a whole new light. The priest pointed out that the king sitting on the throne did not ask what the people of the nations did wrong, he did not ask them for an account of their mistakes, but rather he pointed out what they did not do: he revealed the times that they missed opportunities to do good, opportunities to love.
You could summarize this by saying that the king asked not “How did you sin?” but rather “How did you love?” And that seems to me a very different question.
We could all stand to grow a bit in love, there’s no question about that. What if this Advent we focused on working to love others a little bit more, on preparing our relationships to be a place where Christ resides?
Loving Well in Close Relationships And what does that mean to bring Christ to our relationships? I think this is incredibly hard work. It’s one thing to choose compassion and give money to a hungry man on the street corner; it’s quite another thing to choose compassion and give my friend/spouse/family member the benefit of the doubt when we’re upset.
Why is it so hard to love well precisely those people who are most important to us? When someone is important to us, our own responses to them become increasingly heightened. It’s part of the mutual process of being “tuned in” to each other. The closer two people are, the more sensitive each one is to the other person–their words, their facial expressions, their body language, all of it. This can sometimes seem like a recipe for disaster when things aren’t going so well–but it’s also the key to why our close relationships are the best place to grow in holiness, that is, the best and most real workshop wherein we can strive to be a little more Christ-like each day.
And when I say “bringing Christ to our relationships”, I really mean that each one of us has the constant invitation to examine how we are doing in our love. Because “a relationship” isn’t actually a thing. How I love other people, now that’s something real. My behavior, my words, my actions–those are things I have direct control over, those are things that I can examine at the end of the day to see how I’m doing. The king’s criteria is exactly that–when did you love?
“You” and “I” As Christians, we have been saved from the false presupposition that we are capable of being rational, ethical, loving creatures on our own. We know we’re limited and incomplete. We know that there’s a tendency towards selfishness in us that needs to be transformed and redeemed in order to achieve the heights of love we are destined for.
And part of this process of being transformed is understanding our own selves well–our limitations and our gifts; our original personality with it’s strengths and weaknesses. Forged in the image of the Trinity, we are always a person-in-relationship; both a unique self in our own right and also only fully realized within community. So part of loving well in close relationships is learning to see the harmony between the “I” and the “You.”
“It is therefore necessary that the human personality encompass both dimensions at the same time and in equal measure: personal individuality (“closed-ness”) and openness for the personal “You”. On the one hand, this openness means the making of a home in one’s heart for the “You” and being endowed, enriched, and perfected through the relationship; on the other hand, it means the giving of oneself to and spiritually complementing the other. The “I” can only become interiorly mature and perfected, resilient and creative through self-surrender to a personal “You”, that is, through the passive process of being given a home in the heart of the other and the active process of spiritually giving a home in one’s own heart to the other.
These personal bonds between the “I” and the “You” are so essential that they cannot be replaced by anything else. They are simply part and parcel of the integral character of the human individual.” – Fr. J. Kentenich
In the paragraph that follows this one, Fr. Kentenich points out that leaning too much towards the “I” creates a sick person who is overly individualistic, risking “absolute self-seclusion.” Yet on the other hand, if the pendulum swings all the way towards the “You”, “if the giving of self to the other is done in such a way that the core of the personality is allowed to be swept away, then one has ceased to be truly human. The “I” then becomes an impersonal “It”, resembling for all practical purposes an interchangeable part in a machine.”
How’s that relevant to my everyday life? This understanding of “I” and “You” helps us to evaluate how we are doing in loving. How can this Advent be about learning to love more like Christ loves? How can this Advent be about consecrating those people and relationships most important to me to God? Am I so absorbed in the other that I have forgotten what I value and think? Am I so cut off from others that I no longer make a home for others in my heart?
Loving well in close relationships is hard work. Let us ask for the intercession of our dear Blessed Mother to teach us how to love more fully this Advent season, so that through our own small strivings and God’s infinite mercy, our families, friendships and communities can be a place where Christ is reborn. God knows our world needs it!