Christmas is coming! Very soon all those things that exists in families and among friends sociologists call group cohesion. But it is not Christmas yet. It is Advent and my reflection here, though not at all scientific or even very understanding of the matter attempts to address this cohesion and what it might mean in this time of waiting.

Much of this is motivated by my workplace. I am in one of those people centered places where the bonds of professionalism and friendship is tested and where staff members must always question the practicality and appropriate levels of cohesion. This is especially true at Advent for Christmas may be 19 days away, but in reality we all know Christmas with  its warm feelings toward others has already begun. For anyone who works with those who have intellectual disabilities you know the challenge already. It is simply where are we to exist on that spectrum between cold charity and the warm bonding of friendship that is particularly tested this time of year.

We understand the necessity of cold charity, which is really no charity at all, but the societal obligation held in the social contract that provides for those in need. This is the “charity” of the Hebrew canon that made setting aside ten percent of one’s income a law and the system of taxation in place in the United States that makes provision for those who cannot provide for themselves. It is this type of “charity” that allows me to bring home a paycheck, but also puts me on the front line of discerning my actions in a world inhabited by a different type of charity…..real charity or caritas.

Dutch professor Hans Reinders puts it well when he says “ultimately it is not citizenship, but friendship that matters.” Those I serve care little for the larger system in place that makes my work and my caritas possible. (To the good people of Illinois, I care much for the thing.) For these there is a different matter at hand. They see rightfully they inhabit a community marked by the strongest bonds of a particular kind of friendship and are called to a way of life that acts on these. As such they are not in a place of societal obligation, but in one with the obligation that exists within the bond of attachment.

Now this is not a post about attachment; I am not versed enough in the matter to speak of it as it understood in theory, though I will say every human service professional knows a certain distance is required in their work. Those we serve cannot exist to us in the same way as family and our closest friends. In spite of this, the distance is challenged and necessitates a relationship that is neither one of the social contract or the total cohesiveness of particular groups. This post is about that relationship.

The relationship is caritas or charity as it is known in English. We mostly associate the word with Paul and the early Christians. In Greek, the word is agape and is translated most often as love, though as such it requires great care as there is the perception that agape is the highest form of love, whereas scripture does not say this, but rather agape is the greatest virtue.

I know the idea of a virtue resides a little too cold in the ear and we are quick to forget agape is such a thing, especially when it is a type of love. We would rather have it be about all those warm feelings that accompanies love in its familial and romantic understanding while not being about just those things rather than the true joy and spiritual friendship that comes from the thing. In short agape is not when I drop a dollar in a red bucket that does real good while giving me fuzzy feelings, but the real relationships formed at my people centered workplace complete with all the wonderfully friendly and wonderfully frustrating things that accompany it. Being a virtue that is found in real relationships, it has a component that requires I know with whom I deal even if it could not exist without the generosity of strangers.

Call it what you will, agape or charity is the perfect Advent virtue and love. Soon those I work with will go home (or at least most will.) They will reside in that beautifully earthy place that we cannot be in together. Our staff will be in the same place close to all those who matter more than any of the others can in this world. What will remain when we return is what we have now…..a kindness and friendship that is spiritual in a way that makes everyone equal to one another. It is that perfected love that is to be known by all in time and one that will be ignited in us with a thousand times the intensity of what we know in the present life we have on our lovely frail planet. That we must wait for that “Christmas day” when we will be born in his presence makes it an Advent kind of love and perfect for our reflection in this time of year.


Image:  Advent Wreath at St. Mary’s West Chiltington England by Nick MacNeil.