This past Sunday, I said that the only Christmas gift any of us truly and really wants is to be loved. We ache to be fully known, graciously accepted, and tenderly cherished. We want to feel safe, nurtured, and at home somewhere, at least in our own skin. We yearn to be heard and understood. We long to know that we matter, not for what we do, produce, and provide, not for the roles we play and the responsibilities we shoulder, but for who we are. We want, more than anything else, to be touched, held, carried by love. “What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?” asked the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. “What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?/I think it is the hope of loving, or being loved.”

To experience that kind of love requires from us a vulnerability, a willingness to be known, that is difficult for many people. They have been so wounded by past rejections, so hurt by prior misunderstandings, and so scarred by earlier disappointments that they find it nearly impossible to let down their guard, take off the armor, and put down their defenses. Vulnerability can be frightening.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a model of voluntary vulnerability—of openness to the love and will of God. In response to God’s startling invitation that she become the mother of Jesus, she yielded: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.” She said, “yes.” Because she did, love took shape in her, stretched her, changed her, and brought her great joy. But, it also brought her pain, because to be vulnerable to love is to be vulnerable to hurt. Mary had to listen to others whisper maliciously about the unbelievable story she told Joseph about her pregnancy, and she had to endure on her son’s behalf all the ridicule heaped on him when they called him “the illegitimate son of a carpenter.” She had to wrestle with herself to let Jesus go his own way when he insisted that he had to be about his father’s business, and that father was not Joseph. When Jesus was an adult and became recklessly passionate about the kingdom of God, she worried that he was losing his mind, turning into a kind of fanatic. She grew fearful when Jesus kept colliding with those in charge. She endured a parent’s worst nightmare—she watched her child die a cruel death. This son who had brought here such joy also broke her heart. Love always involves pain and glory, struggle and delight.

So, let’s get this straight: there is no life without pain. We face a choice: either the pain of loneliness, which leads to despair, restlessness, and sadness, or the pain of love, which leads to hope, peace, and joy.

Maybe you feel like you cannot risk or endure vulnerability. Here is where we need to be sure we have heard the promise which comes to all who are invited to open themselves to love: “Nothing is impossible with God.” It is possible for you to open yourself again to love: God’s love in Jesus and the love of other people. You do not have to live a loveless life. Love can be conceived in you and for you, and then you can give birth to love for the world.