As an extrovert, Christmas pushes all my social buttons – both the good and the bad. I try to cram in as many social events as I can throughout this festive period for two main reasons: The first is that I genuinely love nothing more than a good festive knees up and spending time with people. The second is because if I find myself without a social plan at any point in the festive period I quickly feel like I’m a less than socially acceptable human being, and from there quickly feel like my very existence is less than acceptable. Christmas is when you either feel -both figuratively and literally – like you are at the party dancing away with all the other acceptable people or on the outside looking in (probably via Facebook), wondering why you didn’t get an invite. To find yourself alone at Christmas is surely an indication of a less than perfect life led by a less than perfectly well loved person. Of course none of this is true, but the irrational, needy (and let’s face it, dramatic) part of my brain believes that it is.
This festive annual swing of the emotional pendulum isn’t actually isolated to Christmas. Rather, it’s indicative of a current of emotions that flows all year round, but at Christmas the current bubbles to the surface and into my awareness.
One of my favourite passages from my first four months at the Community of St Anselm has been from Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel and it speaks directly into the topic of invitation. In this chapter we read some words that Jesus prays:
‘Father…I ask that those who will believe in me may all be one, just as you Father are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… so that the world may know that you…loved them even as you loved me’
To give a bit of context, Jesus prays this prayer knowing that this would be one of his last prayers, that it would be one of the last things that his disciples would hear him say, knowing that his arrest and execution were looming in the very near future. A man in his final hours doesn’t waste his prayers and words on things he doesn’t mean, so this prayer is not one to be ignored. For me, the character of God is magnificently displayed in Jesus’s request to the Father than we, simple human beings, may ‘be in us’ (it works best if you say it slowly: Be. In. Us).
This is an invitation that should push the social buttons of both extroverts and introverts alike. It’s an invitation to ‘be’, to exist, to rest, to dwell somewhere. It’s a position that is granted to us by grace – Jesus is asking the Father to make it happen – he isn’t suggesting ways we can earn, work or persuade our way in and once there how we can maintain our position. It’s an invitation to be, just as we are. But where are we invited to ‘be’? What- or where -is ‘in us’? Since the beginning of time, God has been three persons – Father, Son and Spirit* – who have been living in perfect relationship with one another. Each person is perfectly loved by the others. No insecurities, no lack, no fighting for position, just perfect relationship. This is what we are invited to take part in. Here, within the secure love of the trinity is where we are invited to be.
This is fairly mind-boggling stuff (and I’m afraid I’m simply not qualified to expand on the theology of the Trinity), but we haven’t even got to the good part yet. The absolute cherry on top of this cake is that it was 100% God’s choice to invite us into this relationship. A common joke about Christmas invites is that a number of them are received from or extended to family members you’d actually rather not spend any time with, but you do out of a sense of guilt or duty, or maybe just to get the Christmas cheque. Unconsciously we (or at least I) can project these things onto God’s invitation to and love for us. We can think it’s out of his sense of Godly duty that He engages in relationship with us, but that He is always keeping us at arms length – that He’d really rather be somewhere else. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 shows us how this is not the case. Jesus himself asks the Father for us to be one with God. He asks for us to be in them. He asks God to love us with the same love that they love each other with.
In this prayer we see that rather than keeping their perfectly fulfilling relationship exclusive, the trinity flung it’s doors wide open and invited us into their midst, to be part of their ‘divine dance’ as Richard Rohr puts it. We’re invited to the party because God wants us there. Not because He is obliged to have us, or because he is needy for our worship (or a Christmas cheque), but because he wants us. In the bible Jesus tells a story of a Father and two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance to be granted to him early (which was a huge insult in 1st Century AD) and leaves his Father’s house, travels to a far away country and ruins himself on sex, drugs and rock and roll. When he returns, tail between his legs but trusting that his Father would be compassionate enough to accept him back as a slave, the Father instead restores his sonship, rejoices and throws a huge party. Sounds like a perfectly happy ending, and it is for the younger son. But there is someone on the outside of the party looking in: the Elder son. This is the guy who has never had a bad school report, who has diligently worked in the family business and has never even asked for so much as a fattened calf. He can’t understand this party being thrown for his scoundrel of a younger brother, and my assumption is that he feels jealous and unloved – where is his party? The grave error that this Elder son has made is that he has never recognised the invitation that Father has extended to him all along. He was always invited to the party, and he is invited to this party which has got even bigger with the inclusion of the younger son, because the Father’s love isn’t exclusive or limited. The Elder son could simply have asked for a fattened calf and it would have been given to him.
I don’t know which son you identify more with – the Younger son sheepishly approaching the Father, aware that your actions have broken relationship, or the Elder son who has ticked all the boxes yet feels relationally distant. Either way, Jesus’ words ‘be in us’ is an invitation, freely and joyfully extended to everyone. To accept it is to never again be on the outside of the party looking in. To accept it is to walk through the open door and join the dance.
And as we accept this invite, as we welcome God’s love for us, the phrase ‘Be in us’ becomes both an invite from God to us and a prayer from us to God. As we are in God, so we pray for God to be in us. Christmas gives us the proof that this prayer both has been and will be answered. At Christmas Jesus quite literally lived inside a human being for about 9 months and then lived in and amongst us for another 33(ish) years. God so loved humans that he came to us, to be in us, in order to lead us into Him. Again, mind boggling, but somehow as we pray it daily, it begins to make sense in our hearts if not in our heads.
Be. In. Us.
*As this is a vaguely, if belated, Christmas post if it helps you can picture a Toblerone** – the most Trinitarian of all the festive confectionary.
**This analogy is dedicated to my very own Mother Superior, Rachel Hirst.