O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
Lent is nearly upon us once again. And the Church’s last signpost before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, tells us plainly the motive and end of our Lenten fast: love. We fast that we may better love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. If we fast with anything else as our motive, to attain a different goal, our fasting is worthless.
The morning Old Testament lesson for the last Sunday before Lent, from Deuteronomy 10, is a command to the Israelites to love the LORD, their covenant God, and serve Him with all their heart and soul. The evening Old Testament, from Leviticus 19, tells of our high duty to our neighbors: to love them as ourselves. And the morning and evening New Testament – from 1 St John 2 and 4, respectively – reiterate the same commandments, in light of the fact that they have now been perfectly embodied and brought to completion in Jesus Christ.
As we prepare to step into Lent, then, it’s worth taking a little time looking through 1 St John. Along with the famous thirteenth chapter of St Paul’s first letter to Corinth, John’s first epistle is perhaps the best place to go to answer to the question, “what is love?”
I. Love, warm as a beam from the rising sun
It takes John a little while to get to that question. He starts his letter where he starts his Gospel: On “the word of life,” which was with the Father and then “made manifest.” Then he writes of fellowship, joy, light versus darkness (righteousness versus sin, truth versus falsehood, openness versus shadiness), his purpose for writing, Christ’s dying as a propitiation for the sins of the world, knowing God in Christ, keeping the commandments. Only at the end of a sentence about keeping the commandments does John first drop the word “love” on us: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”
John’s delay in getting here says nothing about the importance of love in his letter. After he drops the word once, he keeps dropping it all over the heart of his letter (chapters 2-4), stressing over and over love’s paramount importance. But John’s decision to cover several other things in his letter before first using the word “love” does tell us that the kind of love about which he is speaking isn’t an isolated virtue, and cannot be removed from the context of a peculiar community, a particular calling, and a specific story. The commandment to love is at once old (given by Moses) and new (given and brought to completion by Jesus). It is manifestly true in Jesus, and – as “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” – it is becoming true in his letter’s readers, as they learn to follow the Christ who loved them to the utmost.
In short, the love of which John speaks is warm, reliably warm as the rays of the rising sun.
II. Love, keen as a well-whetted blade
The constancy of John’s directions to pursue this kind of love makes all the more arresting his admonition “do not love the world.” This, from the apostle who elsewhere tells us that God loved the world, and that Christ is the propitiation, not only for our sins, but also those of the whole world. What gives?
Here we must be sharp about John’s meaning: what exactly is the “world” we ought not love? John tells us by describing its contents. These are not the earth and the men and women who live in it. Rather, they are the inordinate desires of the flesh and eyes, and pride in possessions. Spend fifteen minutes watching ads and you’ll get a pretty clear picture of what John means by the world. The world holds up certain things and says we need them, like yesterday. It tells us to pursue these things with all our might, at the expense of whomever or whatever might stand in our way. And if we succeed in attaining the things the world says we should want, it tells us we ought to be proud of that.
The trouble, John tells us, is that if a man loves the world and chases its sundry vanities and fashions, the “love of the Father is not in him.” Our love to God and our neighbor must be as keen, as vigilantly jealous, as it is warm. If it isn’t, then it isn’t the genuine article, and it will wither and die.
III. The end of Lenten fasting
This brings us back, at last, to Lent. Among the riches St John has bequeathed to us in his first epistle, he has given the Church a fantastic Lenten prologue, setting before her the glorious end of love for which she fasts. If we are to train our eyes to look ever to God and our neighbors in love, as John tells us we must, there is nothing for us but to wean ourselves off the love of the world. We put out the fires that burn in our flesh, and put right the various distortions that affect our eyes. We do this because we know how fickle our love to our neighbors will be if we are covetous, gluttonous, lascivious, despotic, and grasping – as we are, far too often. And because we know that to the extent that we hold our possessions proudly – as we do, far too often – so that we cannot give them away even to meet someone else’s legitimate need, God’s love cannot abide in us.
For that, we fast.
 The Collect for the Sunday next before Lent, called Quinquagesima.
 Cf. St John 13:34-35.
 The translations don’t usually attach the adjective inordinate to “desire” in 1 St John 2:16, but “inordinate desire” is a better translation of the Greek word here (epithumia) than “desire.” Even without knowledge of the Greek, the whole context of the letter should tell us that John isn’t condemning desire per se. He appeals to his readers’ legitimate desires often enough, and is so insistent about the paramount importance of Jesus’s incarnation, to tip us off that he doesn’t think “flesh” is evil per se, and that he’s not pressing us to seek some kind of otherworldly, incorporeal nirvana.
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