I am going to back up a couple of days in the news because I want to say something about the Christmas message Pope Francis delivered this year.
In it, he said this: “Christmas reminds us that God continues to love us all, even the worst of us. God does not love you because you think and act the right way. He loves you, plain and simple. You may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you.”
That's the Christian message, but it doesn't stop there. And because it doesn't stop there it makes the Christian religion a profoundly difficult faith to follow.
Followers of Jesus are obliged to love others in the way that God loves us -- unconditionally.
Christianity, rooted in Jewish concepts, requires each of its adherents to love people who sometimes aren’t even very likable. As a Christian, I am obliged to see Christ in every person I meet, knowing that each person bears the imago dei, or the image of God. And I mean every single person, whether that person is saintly and generous or a serial killer or even a fan of the professional sports team I dislike the most. None of that matters. All that matters is that he or she is human, a child of God and that we must treat all people lovingly because of that truth.
We are not required just to like them. Nor are we required just to tolerate them. Those standards are far too low for the standards that Jesus uses to tell us that the most important commandment is to love God with all your strength, heart and mind and the second most important is to love our neighbor as ourselves -- commandments that issue from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible.
None of this obliterates the idea of grace, which is God's pure, unmerited favor for humankind. For it's out of the idea of grace that Jesus tells followers that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
In responding to the pope's comments in this way, I am not arguing that other faith traditions teach something radically different or completely opposite. All healthy religions ask their followers to be instruments of grace and peace. But that's what makes religion so difficult if we take it seriously.
I fail in some way at taking it seriously every day. But I know that I can be forgiven and try again. And again. And again. As can we all.
And speaking of new beginnings, I hope you'll come back here tomorrow. I have some news related to that subject that I hope you won't miss.
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2019 IN PHOTOS OF RELIGION
For something a little different, take a look at these fabulous photos from Religion News Service of varying religious practices and events around the world in 2019. Quite stunning.
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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Jean Zeldin retiring from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education -- now is online here.