I drew them with human cords, with bands of love. I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks. Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.
But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
When my niece was an infant, she went through a delightful stage where no matter how full and tired and clean she was she was incapable of sleeping except in the neediest way possible. While her twin “only” needed you to bounce her in her bouncy seat the whole time she slept, Mary Claire was rather more demanding. Eventually I figured out a trick that worked on her and on most other babies I’ve encountered: I held her very tightly against my chest, mashing her face into my face, bouncing or rocking while patting her firmly on the backside and shushing loudly directly into her ear. I’m sure it simulates the womb or something. All I know is that it was exhausting.
Sometimes I feel like little Mary Claire. I’m this mass of needs and my Father holds me so close that I don’t notice him. I attribute the consolation to the kind words of an old friend, the smell of spring on the breeze, the peace of relaxing with a good book. But every one of those is the gift of my Father who has drawn me close to him with human cords, with bands of love.
Sometimes the love of the Father feels like a constraint, like my magic baby hold does at first. For a moment, Mary Claire would cry harder and push against me, but after a few moments, she’d relax into my arms, knowing without knowing that she was loved. God’s love is the same—sometimes it’s not rainbows and love stories but heartbreak and loneliness. Even then he’s holding us, ruining the plans we’d made so that he can keep us close to him.
This is the story of humanity, particularly throughout the Old Testament, the story of a people loved in God’s blessings and in his curses who aren’t able to realize that they’re being held.
God didn’t bless Israel because they had earned it. He didn’t curse them because they deserved it. Both his blessing and his curse were God holding them close, sometimes peacefully and sometimes forcefully. Both were God loving on his baby, a baby who had done nothing to deserve that love (and, some might say in sleep-deprived fits of rage, plenty to lose it).
There’s a real freedom in the realization that we don’t earn or deserve God’s love. Catholics often forget this fact in our just concern for emphasizing that salvation comes through faith and works. But it’s easy for that to become works righteousness, a conviction that God loves us because we’re good. That’s one of the vilest of heresies because it denies God’s love and mercy. It says God is not love, only justice. It castrates the sacrificial death of Christ. It convinces people that since they can earn God’s love, they can also lose it.
The love of God is not about merit. It’s about grace. It’s a freely-given gift, offered to all of humanity regardless of how many lepers you’ve bathed or how many innocents you’ve murdered. It’s the love of a good Father for his baby. It isn’t contingent on sleeping through the night or showing up on Sunday. It isn’t lost through diaper blowouts or a series of bad relationship choices. It’s more absolute than any other love: regardless of what you do, it’s your Father’s job to love you. And he loves you because you are his.
Of course, a well-loved baby becomes a well-loved child and a well-loved adult who wants to love her father well. But if you do, he won’t love you any more than he does. And even if you don’t, he will still love you. I’m sure you’ve heard it said before, but it bears repeating: God doesn’t love you because you are loveable. He loves you because he is love.
So go ahead and pray that rosary, write that check to charity, stop and pray with that homeless man, read Bible stories to your kids. All those things give joy to your Father’s heart. But know this: every drop of his love is a gift. And he will never stop giving it. He will never stop holding you close, even when you can’t feel it, even when you fight it, even when you make an enormous mess. He will never stop loving you.