How do we learn that? Slowly and with difficulty, if you’re like me. But miracles happen. There’s a favourite painting of mine by the 19th century German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It shows a woman standing in a field gazing at the rising sun. She’s silhouetted against the sun and you’re standing behind her, so you can’t see the sun itself, only the clear clean light with which it’s bathing the landscape. In a beautiful gesture, she’s lifting her face up to the sun’s rays and spreading out her hands towards it like a priest, as if saying ‘yes’ to life. It’s an image of love pouring into the soul. Love comes to us as a sunrise of wonder that prises us open, bathes us in a new light.
Love meets our deepest hungers and desires. We spend all our lives looking for it, sometimes in ways that are destructive and obsessive. But as St Augustine learned, even the sins of passion are really loves that have become twisted in the wrong direction. But the gospel, he says, baptises our loves, purifies disordered desires, turns our longings round to face the sunrise and find their right focus in God. Even at their most troubled or exploitative, our relationships can still point to what is lacking in the way we love: acceptance, generosity, self-giving, laying down our lives for our friends, says Jesus, which is how God in Christ loves us. At their most fulfilled, they are a foretaste of heaven. A Graham Greene character says that God is ‘all loves and relationships combined in an immense and yet personal passion’. With that passion, says St. John, God so loved the world.
It is easy to be platitudinous about love, focus on good feelings and warm glow. We clergy are especially good at that. So it’s important to pay attention to how Jesus defines love, gives it shape and character. There is only one test of love, he says; and it is this: to lay down your life for your friends. If you can’t contemplate dying for someone, it’s arguable that you haven’t truly begun to live for them out of love. It’s worth reflecting whom we would dare to die for, what would impel us to give up our lives for someone else. For most, it is those whom God has given us to be intimate with: family, close friends. These loves have clearly defined human faces. For some it is love of nation and homeland: ‘the love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test’ as the hymn puts it. For others again, it is a genuinely altruistic love for the weak and vulnerable of our world who have little hope in life other than because of those who, literally or figuratively, lay down their life for them in love and service. Whichever it is, this is the test Jesus applies. To love one another is to be committed to going wherever it leads, even to the point of death. This is what it is to ‘love one another as I have loved you’.
And the point of this is that Jesus does not only speak about love but embodies it. In the upper room where he and the disciples are gathered, he has just laid aside his robe in order to wash their feet, just as a song in one of Paul’s letters tells how he laid aside his glory in order to take to himself the humble role of a slave. And within a few hours, he will be arrested and tried and led out to die a criminal’s death. And all for us, every human child: that is the measure of love that it goes right to the end. It is cruciform, has the shape of a cross. St Paul puts it like this: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’.
What Jesus is saying is that fundamentally, love is always sacrificial, self-emptying, giving its all and giving it to the end. Love’s endeavour, love’s expense is that it gives everything, withholds nothing, lays itself down for the sake of others. We don’t need to be told when we are loved like this. We know it whether it is in our marriages or friendships, or in the care we received when we most needed it. We know it when we observe how the extent of people’s commitment takes them to the most vulnerable people in our society and to the most desperate in our world. Above all we know it when we gaze upon Jesus on the cross and find ourselves looking straight into the face of God.
God’s love is always moving among and between us and bathes this world in light. As Julian of Norwich said, we only exist at all because God loves us: creation is the evidence that God is love. In all our stories, we glimpse how God so loved that he gave, and so loves that he goes on giving, laying down his life for his friends which is how he meets and embraces us. It happens in every act of healing care and compassion we know. It happens when reconciliation brings together broken peoples and communities and mends them. It happens when our hearts are glad because some beautiful piece or a poem or painting has touched us. It happens in the greeting of a friend and the touch of someone we love. It happens at the altar in the visible words of love: bread and wine, taken, blessed, broken and given. In all these ways, and a thousand others, each moment, each hour, each day, love comes to us and we glimpse its meaning, God’s meaning. And we begin to understand the deep magic of the universe that as Dante said, it is ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars’.