It should remind us that the Christian view of love is no soppy thing. Love is courageous, long-suffering and self-sacrificing. Chocolates, flowers and love-hearts don’t take us anywhere near the Christian idea of love. It may be that so many marriages founder because people were expecting the initial rush of romantic feeling to be lifelong. Real love, as the Bible’s greatest poet reminds us, ‘is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave’ (Song of Songs 8:6b). When we read that great ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13, we may well find ourselves discomfited at our lack of love as much as moved at love’s beauty.
For Christians, all love ultimately finds its source in God. The writer of epistles known as John put it in characteristically simple, yet profound terms: 'God is love’ (1 John 4:8b). The depth of love transcends our human emotion. It is love that sends Christ to earth for us. In this month we are between his Incarnation and his Passion. It is a good time to reflect on love. Love modelled in the care Jesus received from his mother, and love modelled in Jesus being ready to give up his life for his friends. This is love as commitment, action and self-sacrifice. Ultimately love places the needs of the other above our own. Loving even our enemies in that way seems a very tall order indeed. Yet this is what is asked of us. How can we achieve this impossible standard?
In discussion of the Holy Trinity, some have put it this way: the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, the Spirit is the Love that is shared between them. Like all metaphors for the Trinity, it is inadequate, faltering and flawed. And yet it conveys something profound. It is this same Holy Spirit whom Christ breathes on his followers. The 1 Corinthians 13 type of love is made possible by the indwelling of the Spirit in each of us. It is our openness to the Spirit that enables us to be ready to lay aside what we desire in favour of those whom God calls us to love.
It’s a good time to be reminded of that as this month, the very next day after St Valentine’s Day, the All Hallows’ PCC meets to consider, in the light of all that we have uncovered through our looking and listening in the first year of the Partnership for Missional Church, to whom is God sending us, and how is God sending us? And at St Edmund’s too, though we are not going through the same process, the same question pertains. We might ask it another way: who are we for?
If just for ourselves, or even for each other, we are not all that Christ calls his Church to be. We are for; we are with, the people of peace in our community who will open us up to new ways of being for and with that same community. As Archbishop William Temple put it: ‘the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.’
How are we to be sustained as a place of love if we are to exist for others? Will not the well run dry very quickly? I think that’s a big risk as well as a big ask. I don’t know entirely what the answer is, but the question brings me back to Valentine’s Day itself. Romance as a substitute for love is no love at all, but romance alongside real love helps us to recognise, uphold and sustain it. There is an element of decision and will in the deep and real love I’ve been discussing above, but that doesn’t mean that feelings are not involved. As Solomon (or whoever it was that wrote the famous song) goes on to say:
Passion [is] fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. (Song of Songs 8:6b-7a)
So as we consider even more deeply how we might love those who are not yet members of our Christian communities; as we think about who we might be with and for, let’s remember to ‘romance’ one another. Let’s take the trouble to do the sweet, little things that show that we care and that we feel for one another. Some of that will be practical acts of help; some of it will be simple, unwarranted acts of generosity to one another: gifts left on a doorstep, cards expressing appreciation, inviting each other for a meal, a phone call for no other reason than to say ‘hello, how are you?’.
Whatever you’re doing and whomever you’re sharing it with – friends, family or a partner, have a happy St Valentine’s Day. May this month be one wherein you know yourself to be loved! ♥︎
Love from Mark.