Saturday, 26 November 2011

Love: 1 Corinthians 13

    As verger of St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown, I attended innumerable weddings. The Reverend Don Meadows and I made a good team.  While he welcomed, reassured, celebrated and preached, I parked cars, secured slipping veils, took flower-girls to the toilet, retied sashes, sorted out spats between mothers-in-law, distracted the odd drunk from disrupting the service, kept the neighbourhood kids quiet and played the carillon.

    Don had just one marriage sermon. He had refined it over the years and used it on every occasion, except when a member of his own congregation was getting married.  He preached it, at different degrees of complexity and with different inserted references to couples ranging from members of the law fraternity to a couple who met at a workshop for the intellectually disabled.  The sermon sought to encapsulate the Love of God in one easy and memorable lesson.

The personification of Charity and other Virtues
drew on the Classical tradition of the Muses.
    Of all the various wedding experiences that I had over the years, I most treasure an occasion when I heard the passage on Faith, Hope and Love from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, read superbly.  I was asked, before the service, to look out for the woman who was reading, because she was running rather late.  She was an actress, and they had asked her specially, because they were sure she would do it well. The Rector, I believe, had advised on a suitable passage of scripture.  

    The actress arrived in time, and when she stepped up to the lectern and smiled graciously, it was clear that something special was about to happen, but the impact of it upon the verger was unprecedented. This woman read St Paul's letter as if it was addressed to her personally, as if she had just received it from far away, opened it and was devouring it eagerly.  She read with growing excitement, with discernible joy, savouring each precious phrase of this, one of the best-known passages of the Bible, as if she was discovering it for the first time.    I was simply thrilled by the power of this actress, to convey all that, within the context of reading an epistle in church.  I told her so, after the service.
    The actress looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and delight. 
    "But, Dahling," she said "I was reading it for the first time! They left it till the last minute to ask me, and, as I don't own such a thing as a Bible, I had never read it before in my life!" 

Khalil Gibran and his spiritual poetry
    A later priest, under whom I served as verger, used often to include within the service a poetic reading by Khalil Gibran. I supposed I heard it almost as many times as I heard Don Meadow's sermon. But the sentiments, urging the married couple to stand apart like trees and let the wind blow through their love, never spoke to me of what I considered married love ought to be. I became convinced that, despite all the writing that he did on the subject, perhaps Khalil Gibran didn't understand love at all, and that some of his advice, taken in the context of marriage, may very well be seriously misconstrued.

    Gibran was born in the 19th century to a Maronite Christian family and migrated from Lebanon to the US. Much of Gibran's writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences : Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. His best known work is "The Prophet", 1923, and he is said to be the third most widely read poet in the world.

   Today I found a lengthy poem posted on another blog page.  Here is an excerpt:

When love beckons to you,  follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

    The poem rolls on, piling image upon image, sometimes mentioning God, sometimes appearing without explanation, to have jumped from spiritual love to carnal desire and back again.

    Various comments have been made in praise of the beauty and spirituality of this poem.  However, I have quite a few problems with it. While the language uses appealing and seemingly deeply meaningful images, taken as a whole, it means nothing whatsoever. It is as intellectually satisfying as a mouthful of fairy floss.

    The poem obviously draws in part upon 1 Corinthians 13, and like much of Kahlil Gibran's writing, assumes pseudo-Biblical language and phrasing (in much the same way as 19th century translators of the Quran worded it in antiquated King James Version English to give it a "scriptural" feeling.) The words and imagery roll on in a most enticing manner. The content, however, is as hollow as the proverbial sounding brass and as shallow as the clashing cymbal.

    What is actually being said? What sort of love is being referred to?  Is this the profound love of God?   Is it the love that Christians are encouraged to have for one another?  Is it an all encompassing love for humanity?   Is it romantic love?  All these aspects of love are hinted at in passing.
If this poem is about spiritual love, then it fails to inform, to encourage or to sustain. It doesn't tell us that we are loved. It doesn't tell us how we should love. 

God as Love 

      In Christianity "God is Love".  Love is a primary attribute of God.   God is love just as God is truth and God is life.  Moreover, the love of God is distinguished in the Greek by the use of the word "agape" meaning that it is selfless, all-encompassing and voluntary.

    I am drawn to compare Gibran's poem with Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven".  In this poem the writer is pursued by Love.  It becomes increasingly clear that the love which ceaselessly follows, despite all attempts to avoid, to hide, and to find satisfaction in other loves, is the Love of God. It is the selfless, enduring, forgiving love that is offered again and again, and eventually must be accepted.  
Love says:

Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, 
I am He Whom thou seekest! 
Thou drivest love from thee, who drivest Me.

Christian symbols for Love 

The Pelican.  A symbol of Christ's love, dependent on a
misunderstanding of the habits of Pelicans. 
      Within the context of the Christian Church, there are a number of symbolic images that stand for "Love".  One is the image of the crucified Christ which says to the Christian, in the most graphic terms: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life." 

     Another image of love, used since Medieval times, is that of the pelican with a nest full of young.   It was believed that the pelican so loved its young that it would pluck feathers from its own breast and feed the hatchlings on its blood.  The image of the pelican became the symbol of Christ's sacrificing love for the Church, and the pictorial motif is used particularly at churches with the dedication "Christ Church".

    The third image is that of Charity,  the "caritas" or caring love that evolved with the Latin translations of the Greek scriptures.  Charity, with her sister virtues of Faith and Hope, was to adorn many fresco, tomb and stained glass window, from the late Middle Ages through to the early 20th century.  All three, like other virtues, were given feminine persona.  Fide (or Faith) is depicted clinging to a large cross,  Spes (Hope) staunchly carries an anchor, while Caritas (Love) is a breast-feeding mother, often shown with twins.

Loving others

     In 1 Corinthians, chapter 13,  the message and its context are perfectly clear.  The context is not about what love can do to or for a person. The whole context of this passage is the necessity for a Christian person to have love for others.  Not a lustful love, not a one-on-one reciprocal love, but an enduring, selfless Christ-like love.     

    The Christian teaching does not make "love" an Eros-type persona, and talk about how it affects the one who yields to it.  In Christianity, the affect upon oneself is always down-played. The importance of love, and the reason why one needs to possess it, is entirely how it affects others.

    1 Corinthians 13 shows love to be a quality that a Christian person is fully obligated to possess, because if they do not, then all other gifts that they may have, are of little value.

"Love bears all things.....endures all things....
Love never ends." 
What are we told, in 1 Corinthians 13, are the characteristics of Love?

"Love is patient and kind; 
love is not jealous or boastful; 
it is not arrogant or rude. 
Love does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 
Love bears all things, believes all things, 
hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never ends..... 
So Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three; 
but the greatest of these is Love." 

The Crucifx of Archbishop Gero of Cologne, c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, is possibly the oldest extant large sculptured crucifix. The backing mandorla is modern.

The personifications of Faith, Hope, Charity, Truth, Justice, Temperance and other Biblical virtues or gifts of the spirit had a practical purpose. They were often publicly displayed, with their various attributes, such as the sword and scales of Justice, and the jugs of wine and water of Temperance, as statues around the exterior of public buildings and as decoration inside venues such as town halls, to remind both the public and those in power of their duty towards each other.

The pelican with its young formed part of the rich iconography of the Medieval Church and takes its place among the many and diverse small images that may be found as carvings in wood and stone within ancient church buildings. However, where one may find foxes, cats, bears, and wolves in all sorts of odd places, the pelican is nearly always displayed in an elevated position, having direct association with both the sacrificial nature of Christ's love, and with the Church itself.

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