The story of Jesus begins long before the manger and even before the angel Gabriel’s startling announcement to Mary. Before God said, “Let there be light,” and “Let there be stars and moon, fish and birds, cows and caterpillars,” God said, “Let there be Jesus.”
In other words, God creates in order to embrace. To stand in our midst. To be one of us. To invade our personal space with overwhelming, life-giving love. And after speaking “Jesus,” God speaks each particular creature into existence in order to be in relationship with that one, irreplaceable, infinitely unique being.
John opens his Gospel echoing the first creation story, but his message also unpacks the second creation story: the Adam and Eve story. There, we read that God formed Adam out of the dust, breathing life into what would have otherwise remained a mud pie.
Crucially, God said, “Let there be Adam.” Let there be this one, unique person. God did not create a mold called “humanity” so that God could measure each individual’s conformity to a single ideal. On the contrary, God said, “Let there be Jill. Let there be Jose. Let there be Salma.” And Jill is Jill. Jose is Jose. Salma is Salma.
God’s love speaks each specific, unrepeatable person—and each hippo and salamander and brook trout—into being. God calls you and me to recognize, to respect, and to take joy in the unique beauty and goodness of each creature.
In other words, God urges us to love what God loves. That’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God. And if you’re anything like me, loving at this depth is something you’re still learning to do.
For instance, some years ago my friend Emile and I were driving back from a monthly clergy lunch in Athens, Alabama, to our homes in Huntsville. Emile had retired years earlier from Huntsville’s mother church and would hitch a ride with one priest or another to wherever we had decided to get together. He seemed to know everybody in northern Alabama, and my colleagues and I admired and adored him as our wise and nurturing elder.
When I picked Emile up at his house to head over to lunch, he had asked me if I minded making a stop on the way back. He knew a beekeeper and wanted to pick up some honey. On the return trip we pulled off the main road and wound a short way up a dirt track until we arrived at a ramshackle trailer sitting alone on a scrubby, red-clay lot.
The door of the trailer opened and a tall, lanky man sprang down the steps and strode energetically toward us. His long, wind-tossed hair brushed his shoulders. His wiry beard reached to his chest. His broad smile revealed large gaps between his few remaining teeth.
Jim nodded at me and quickly turned to Emile and said, “You know, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that conversation we had about the Oxford Movement and rereading their tracts. They’ve revolutionized my doctrine of the Church, the Sacraments, and the relationship between Church and State.”
I had seen only a backwoods hick. But hicks don’t talk like this. Or read Pusey and Newman. Or talk about sacramental theology.
We see most people in passing. From habit or for convenience, sometimes from fear or prejudice, we lump people into one group or another and then assume that we know all we need to know about them. That’s a Jew or an Arab or a gay person or a teenaged black male or a redneck.
The philosopher Martin Buber said that when we size people up in this way we form an I-It relationship with them. We radically depersonalize them. Condescension, disrespect, and even hatred become much easier when “Jim” is just one of those people. An It.
God doesn’t sort people into groups like Muslim or red-blooded American. God recognizes this person’s unmistakable scent, feels the unique rhythm of this person’s pulse, hears the tones and cadences of this person’s voice.
God embraces our radical particularity. No one can be exchanged for someone else. Martin Buber calls this an I-Thou relationship. You can’t hate, objectify, exploit, debase, or ignore the suffering of a Thou.
God does not love humanity. “Humanity” is an abstraction. God loves Maria and Youssef, Kalifa and Bubba. God loves the twinkle in those eyes, the rasp of that voice, the shyness of that smile. No two laughs, no two souls, no two hearts, no two life-stories are alike.
God loves real flesh and blood people. Each and every one. And if we seek to love God, the only way forward is to love real people. Without exception.