A friend and colleague of mine, Wayne Te Kaawa, once explained to me that aroha is a compound word: it combines aro, “to turn or to bend,” with hā, “breath.” Aroha means to bend and share breath with another. Aro may also be a contraction of aroaro, which means “in the presence of.” So, the term aroha has multiple connotations. In my limited Pākehā understanding, I can’t imagine a better expression of what aroha means than that which is given to us in the incarnation:
God so loved the world
that through his beloved Son he bends low to meet us,
is present with us,
and bestows upon us the breath of life.
I cannot imagine either a better expression of what Christian service involves. Jesus bent low to serve us, humbled himself, as Philippians 2:8 puts it, and took the form of a slave. Throughout Jesus’s ministry, we see repeatedly lives transformed through his servant presence. The touch of his garment brings healing to a woman who had been afflicted with illness for many years. Supper shared with a fraudulent tax collector brings repentance and entry into a new life that is characterised no longer by exploitation and greed but by the reckless generosity of love. An encounter with a woman caught in adultery and in fear for her life breaks the shackles of punitive justice, liberates her from sin, and sets her free into the capacious realm of divine grace. Jesus serves by giving life in all its fullness to those who have squandered it and to all those who have been deprived of it through the machinations of our fallen world.
To serve like this and to share the breath of life with others is the calling of all who would be followers of Jesus. Jesus himself makes clear that we must become as servants (Mt 20:26). Similarly, when Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, he said, “For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you … Servants are not greater than their master” (Jn 13: 5–16).
There is, of course, a proviso, something more that needs to be said. Unlike Jesus, who, as Philippians 2 puts it, was in the form of God but emptied himself in order to become a servant, we have been lifted up to be servants. We who are inclined to wander off like prodigals have been gathered into the embrace of divine love, have been adorned with the robe of Christ’s righteousness, and are given the honour of sharing in the servant life of Christ. We can only do so because Christ continues to breathe into us the breath of his Spirit. To share through the Spirit in the servant life of Christ is a high privilege, a great joy, and reason enough to pray once more this Advent: Come Lord Jesus, come!
This article was first published in Venn’s print circular, The Common, in November 2019. Republished here with the author’s permission – Ed.