April 25th, 2013
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Jn. 13:34. RSV
One Sunday evening, a couple of years back, my wife and I drove up to Boston and stayed at the Marriott Hotel right in the heart of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) campus. Faye went off to her conference early Monday morning. I slept late and went out and sat on a bench in a large plaza opposite the subway entrances at Kendall Square. I read a bit of the paper and stoked up my pipe when I noticed a thirty-something couple seated at a table a hundred yards away. Their conversation was lively and every so often they leaned across the table and kissed. They would then continue their conversation. Now I am not a voyeur, so I finished reading the paper and spent about an hour praying. The plaza was busy with noontime lunch passers-by. Some read. Others ate. A few rested. Most looked harried, distracted, lonely, or unhappy. The scene resembled a Hopper painting. Throughout this time the couple continued their conversation, pausing occasionally to lean forward and to kiss. I got up to get a cup of coffee. When I returned they were gone.
Like Rodin’s statue “The Kiss,” my couple defined the space and dominated the moment. Together they gave life and passion to an otherwise stilted scene. There, in the heart of an institution that honors Newton and Darwin, where there are temples to abstract reason, logic, objectivity, and science, were two people being human. Their kiss was not vulgar, lascivious, or crude. It was warm and gentle, desirous, and considerate, friendly and loving. Where passers-by appeared distracted, dour, busy, and dispassionate, a man and a woman made a statement with a kiss that was part eros and part philos, part desire and part friendship. They reminded me that behind reason, science, and logic there lies a vital force that is creative and re-creative, powerful and beautiful, gentle and soaring.
During the afternoon I browsed the MIT Co-op, sampling books on religion and literature. Being a sucker for the visual image, I thumbed volumes of photographic essays, pausing to look at pictures of the family of man. Here was a mother kissing her child and a father kissing his son. There was joy and hope, pathos and tragedy as a Japanese mother nursed her child the day after Hiroshima, or a Vietnamese held her boy “Pieta” like, a contemporary Madonna. The kiss of familial love permeated the diverse family of man, just as it does the legends of the tribes of Israel and the narratives of the Old Testament. Were Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Naomi, Hosea and Gomer, David and Bathsheeba all that different from those in my photo books?
When I returned to Stamford, I went up to the critical care unit of the hospital to find a grieving wife kissing so very gently her dying husband. In this sterile environment is there room for love? Is a kiss appropriate, or even dangerous? Does it give life or signal farewell? I prayed for my patient, anointed him, walked out into the corridor and paused before a framed poster. The legend below the drawing was a quotation from former New York senator Jacob Javits. In his retirement Javits suffered and died from Lou Gehrig’s disease (as did my grandfather). The quotation read, “In critical care, it strikes me that the issues are three: realism, dignity and love.”
So here was that word, “love”, again. In the arena of the critical care unit, as in the photographs and at the plaza at MIT, here was a statement as to the importance of not only the “human feeling” dimension in life, but also that intense creative and re-creative energy and passion at the source of our all too human existence. Some dare to call it “love.”
I wondered, as I stood in the parking lot at the hospital, if the “critical care unit” were not a metaphor for our lives. You and I are besieged daily by the stresses of the work place, family, society and moral dilemmas. Loneliness is a national epidemic. Joblessness brings despair. Failure in our vocations, fear in our old age, hopelessness in our youth –all these place many of us on the critical care list. We know that we cannot survive without being realistic and practical. We gasp for dignity. We earnestly desire love.
Have we not always looked for meaning in life, for a religious dimension to our existence? Do we not ask to be kissed by meaning, to find some kind of affirmation? Love, philos, which is friendship, was the basis of much Greek thought. The Hindu religion raised up eros and ecstasy, honoring love as desire. The Hebrews elevated familial love, the bond of a people with one another and with God. They celebrated God as one who was not only creator but also sustainer, one who so loved his people that again and again He sought them out. Guiding, cajoling, punishing, proclaiming, God repeatedly called His people back to a relationship of love for Him and love for neighbor.
Out of this interaction of God and His people there arose a heightened ethical sense. Righteousness and peace were not only the proclaimed standards of the prophets; they reflected God’s faithfulness and steadfast love for His people. Enunciating the longing of a people out of the depths of their “critical care” existence, and the promise of God to his desperate people, the psalmist wrote:
“Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, to His faithful, to those who turn to Him in their hearts. Surely His salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that His glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet: righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Ps. 85:7-10)
The promise of God and the hope of a struggling people for righteousness and peace are sealed with a kiss.
The Old Testament, then, points to a love deeper than friendship, sensual desire, and even deeper than familial love. It points to the steadfast love of God’s faithfulness, His “hesed.” This steadfast love is never-ending, regenerative and re-creative.
God’s faithfulness and steadfast love is so profound and compassionate that it becomes incarnate. In a moment in time, a final self-giving act of love explodes upon the plaza of our human story. God reveals Himself not only as creator, regenerator and sustainer, but also as redeemer. In the Easter Passion of Jesus Christ, mankind’s condition is embraced and transformed. Our love can only at best be desire. Hopefully, as Dante showed, a love for Beatrice can be purified into a love for God. Or as Augustine promised, our passionate longing can find its eternal home in God. But always our love for God and for one another is strained and part of our desire. The love you and I yearn for is that love which is found at the base of existence and which is given for us. It is an agape love, a sacrificial, redemptive, freely given love. It is a love of grace. This love is found in Jesus’ love, in God’s love for you and me.
Jesus’ command that you and I love one another is profound in its simplicity. Our filial, sensual, familial loves are good; they are blessed by God’s grace. They are taken up and sanctified by the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. You and I are called to accept God’s love for us just as we are in our “critical care” lives.
And what is it that Jesus’ commandment to love one another asks us to do? We are to help, not hinder, to build, not destroy, to support, not weaken. We are asked to lower our defenses and to forgive. We are asked to exchange the kiss of peace, to reach out and to gather up. St. Paul sang of it: love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, not irritable or resentful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is greater than faith and hope. (I Corinthians 13:1-13)
To love one another is to live the life that Christ lived for you and me. It is to see our Christian lives as embodying His spirit and His work on earth. You and I are commanded by Jesus to love one another, to open our lives to each other and to His love. We share that Agape love in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and in the fellowship of our life together. When you and I love one another, we make a statement in the midst of a critical care, preoccupied passer-by world, that the source of all meaning in life is steadfast and transcends the forces of friendship, desire, and intellect. With the life of Jesus Christ, (the incarnation of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love), you and I discover a sacrificial reconciliation brought by God. In the words of the psalmist, “Justice and peace have kissed each other.” Your and my Easter message is about that miracle of redemption and resurrection. You and I proclaim that God, in effect, has reached out and kissed mankind. Amen.