Though I speak with the tongues of angels and of men and have not love, I am as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal – I Corinthians 13:1
THIS lovely letter of St Paul almost makes the prospect of Lent in lockdown bearable. St Paul knew something about rhetoric, about the musicality of language, about cadences. His letters were written not to be pored over by non-believing modern bishops and dusty academic theologians. They were to be read aloud in those early churches, Rome, Corinth, Philippi and Ephesus. So let us think for a few minutes about the love of God. Not as a theological idea, but as the tangible everlasting outpouring of God himself. For the preposterous truth is that God is in love with us. Now that’s a thought for St Valentine’s Day beyond the fizz and chocolates!
We see God’s love chiefly in the loveliness of Jesus. What makes Jesus compelling is the way he gets so close to the people he meets. He enters their very being. To the man born blind he asks, What wouldst thou that I should do unto thee?What does he think he wants?! It’s a kindly joke. Lord, that I might receive my sight. And he says directly Receive thy sight. Or think of how he blesses the little ones: Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not – for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Or the woman caught in adultery for which the penalty was being stoned to death: Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more. Remember, as he is being led out to be flogged and crucified, his brief meeting with Simon Peter after Peter’s denial. And the Lord looked on Peter, and Peter remembered. What must that look have been like? Or even to Judas Dost thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss? And to the penitent thief on the cross: Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise. And to Mary Magdalene in the garden on the first Easter morning, just the one word, Mary. And, as Lancelot Andrewes tells us, He touched her, and of a sudden she was all greening.
Buddhism says you have to practise compassion and detachment. Jesus knew that this is impossible. He above all others practises compassion not through detachment but through attachment – the closest attachment you can have: the sympathetic entering into the heart and soul of the other person. To Jesus the secrets of all hearts are disclosed as soon as there is a meeting, a word, a glance, a kiss. In Mary Magdalene’s case, tears . . . not once but twice.
What then is this Christian love? It is simply that we should be like Jesus. That’s all! All you need is love? Yes, that’s right. But love isn’t cloying sentimentality. Sentimentality is the deadly opposite of love, because superficially it looks like love: Satan is, after all, the perfect counterfeiter; the ape of God. Sentimentality isn’t love. It always ends in cruelty and indifference because it is concerned with ‘me’ and ‘my feelings’ and not with the real other person at all. Sentimentality is when the BBC reporter asks: How did you feel? How did you feel when your two-year-old was run over by a lorry? The sentimentalist is forever observing and wallowing in his own responses, measuring his own feelings and reactions, instead of looking outwards towards his neighbour. Too much self-consciousness is a form of idolatry. If I may parody Socrates for a moment, the too-much-examined life isn’t worth living
The priest is privileged beyond measure because through his craft, his priestcraft, he administers the sacraments of love. He is allowed to be close to his people at all the most significant moments in their lives. I get to hold the baby, to splash the water by which he or she is made a member of Christ, a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. At the wedding it is the priest who touches the couple as he ties their hands with his stole. Those whom God hath joined together . . .
And there is nothing more intimate than a splendid funeral in an English churchyard. There is that prayer from the 1549 Prayer Book in which the priest addresses the deceased directly and so shows that we truly believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. He doesn’t say, as in later books, We commend his soul as if talking about someone behind his back, or like an inspector from the VAT office. We commend his soul. Isn’t that just rude, a lack of courtesy? Or did Thomas Cranmer lose the plot between the writing of his first Prayer Book and his second? The earlier 1549 book says with great tenderness to the corpse: I commend thy soul. Supremely, at the Mass, the priest moves along the row at the altar rail and is amazingly privileged to be the one who places the sacramental life of Christ himself into your hands.
The administration of the Sacraments is only – if I dare say only– something the priest does on behalf of everybody: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In other words, we are all called to be channels and conduits of the love of God. What we are called to do is what Christ did naturally and all the time – because love is his nature – and that is to forget self and instead install oneself imaginatively in the heart and soul of our neighbour. How is it done? Well, we can’t love all by our own effort. We must ask God to pour into our hearts the capacity to love. Then practically you must use your imagination and pretend for a minute to be the other person who needs your love.
When we achieve this, even only rarely and even only a little bit, a most strange transformation occurs: we find that the self we sacrificed, if only for a minute, is given back to us in that loving meeting with our neighbour. And this self that we discover is our true self, because like Christ’s own self, it is the self we have given away. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
We fall short of this vision all the time. But the teaching of Jesus, the love of Jesus, delivers to us the blinding truth that love is the only reality. Everything else will fade away and only love will remain. God should not be thought of as an infinitely powerful being who is busy doing all sorts of important things, and who just happens to love us. God is love and nothing else. As the great Dante puts it: It is love that moves the sun and the other stars. Or, as the old popular song said: Love makes the world go round. We should not fret too much when we fall short, for what is that fretfulness but a lapsing back into the sin of self-obsession? You fall short and you do what another song says: Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Always remembering that our salvation is guaranteed not because we first loved Him, but because He first loved us.
Sentimentality makes us subjective towards ourselves and objective towards others. Love asks us to be objective towards ourselves and subjective towards others.
Pour into our hearts, dear Jesus, thy most excellent gift of love.