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Christmas is a Christian holiday, obviously. But people of good will everywhere can celebrate its central meaning.

Christmas is a Christian holiday, obviously. But people of good will everywhere can celebrate its central meaning. There is, of course, the risk that the meaning can be lost in the celebration.

What is this meaning? Four letters suffice to name it: love. One of our favorite Christmas carols praises the "Son of God" as "love’s pure light." Another distills the Christmas message thus:

Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace.

A less familiar Christmas song, first a beautifully simple 19th century poem by Christina Rossetti, offers the same message: “Love came down at Christmas / Love to God and to all men.”

Who, Christian or not, can be unmoved by such inspiring sentiment? Well, leave it to a philosophical scrooge like me to complicate the celebration with the question, “what is love?" You can blame my questioning, if you like, on Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine Chair at Assumption College and author of numerous works in political philosophy), who has recently published an important book that shows how crucial this question is for us today. In "The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity" he asks what becomes of “love” when it is separated from its divine source and therefore from its ethical and spiritual meaning. The dust jacket offers a good statement of the book’s argument:

“… the humanitarian impulse to regard modern man as the measure of all things has begun to corrupt Christianity itself, reducing it to an inordinate concern for ‘social justice,’ radical political change and an increasingly fanatical egalitarianism. Christianity thus loses its transcendental reference points at the same time that (pseudo-Christian humanitarianism) undermines balanced political judgment. Humanitarians, secular or religious, confuse … moral judgment with utopianism and sentimentality.”

Just what is the problem with a love that has lost its “transcendental reference points”? Love is love, right? Wrong, actually. We know that C.S. Lewis discerned four diverse types of love, and the great biblical scholar N.T. Wright notes that the Greek word agapē itself had thousands of possible senses. Christians, says Wright, “gave it the fresh privilege of carrying a new depth of meaning” specific to the Christian message — a message of transcendent beauty and of rigorous moral demands. Without attention to the deeply Christian meaning of love, we risk interpreting the term ideologically, as in “Love wins,” or, going back a few decades, “Make love not war.” In both slogans the implication is that seductive suggestion that doing what feels good to us and recognizing the right of other people to do what feels good to them is equivalent to some holy standard of righteousness. But “God is love” and “Love is God” are far from being equivalents.

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God sent his Son to save us from our sins (and from death), not to deny that there is such a thing as sin (or to invite us to ignore the problem of death or solve it on our own). Love does not cancel out the difference between good and evil, but presupposes it. The greatest of all theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275), praised Christian love or “charity” in ways that make it impossible to confuse it with today’s easy-going and nonjudgmental counterfeit. He is clear that human love is derivative of — and depends upon — Divine love: We do not truly love others through some spontaneous and easy fellow-feeling or primitive compassion, a naturalistic response based on simple awareness of our common humanity. We truly love others only in and through God, because we love him, because he first loved us. As we read in Rossetti’s poem: “Worship we the Godhead / Love incarnate, love divine.” Love is not just a feeling; love is a virtue. In fact, Aquinas teaches, the “form” or crowning consummation of all the natural virtues of character. The supernatural virtue of love does not replace courage and moderation, and much less chastity, it builds upon and perfects them. Love is all about virtue; love is the highest virtue.

The true love we celebrate at Christmas is a revelation of Christianity. But it is not just for Christians: it is offered to all mankind and speaks to the soul of every human being. One need not be Christian to be touched by and share in the message of Christmas, the message of divine, redeeming love. But, in this season especially, Christians need to be clear about what love is, a transcendent virtue. And clear about what love is not.