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Posts Tagged ‘St John’

VisitationMarytoElizChildinWombblogIn Advent we remember the absence of God — not to despair as though he were fully absent, but to hope for his fuller presence. Four hundred years of divine silence preceded the Exodus, and then the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Four hundred years of divine silence preceded the Word’s becoming flesh and dwelling — tabernacle-ing — among us. For so God loved the world, dark though it was.

In the Revelation to St John, the heavenly herald declared (21.3-4):

Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

The second promise — that God will scour us with all the old Creation –we do not yet see fulfilled. And long we have waited for it. Yet we know it is true, because the first promise was fulfilled, in the sight of unlikely but faithful witnesses, whose eyes had been tested almost to the limit in looking for God-With-Us, the glory of Israel and light to the nations.

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I find it quite astounding that I have never seen or heard any commentator point out the striking connections between the forty-third Psalm and the beginning of chapter 14 of St John’s gospel.

“O send forth thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.”  Psalm 43:3

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will lead you to myself, that where I am, you may be also. . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”  St John 14:1-3, 6

In this — one of the most controversial statements if not the most controversial statement uttered by Jesus — our Lord presents Himself, among other things, as the answer to the Psalmist’s plea that God send forth His light and His truth.  The Psalmist cried out in distress for a bright and faithful search party to take him to the dwelling of God.  And here is Christ Jesus.

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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.[1]

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[2]). 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.[3]

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,[4] 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.[5]

For that, we fast.


[1] The Collect for the Sunday next before Lent, called Quinquagesima.

[2] Cf. St John 13:34-35.

[3] St John 13:1

[4] 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.

[5] 1 St John 3:17.

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Quoth man: “You bade me conquer harm
With no strength but this weak right arm.
 
“I would ride to war with a glad consent
Were I, as You, omnipotent.”
 
God said: “You show but little sense;
What triumph is there for omnipotence?”
 
Said man: “If You think it well to be
Such a thing as I, make trial and see.”
 
God answered him: “And if I do,
I’ll prove Me a better Man than you.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Triumph of Christ, in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (1918).

guinness toucanDorothy Sayers spent nine years of her life as an advertiser and copywriter. The record shows she was very good at her job. For instance, without her ingenuity, you likely never would have seen a Guinness Toucan. And some say it was she who first uttered the now-proverbial phrase “it pays to advertise.”

So I wonder what she would have said about the English Church’s branding of this day — which has a plausible claim to be the most significant day on the Christian calendar — as Maundy (“Commandment”) Thursday. On this day Jesus did nothing less than institute the Lord’s Supper, wash the disciples’ feet, lay claim to the title “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” promise to send the Holy Spirit, pray His High Priestly Prayer, sweat blood in Gethsemane, suffer betrayal by Judas, and submit to arrest by the Judean authorities. With so much extraordinary material to work with, to call the day “Commandment Thursday” looks like shooting yourself in the foot, at least from a branding standpoint.

Yet I cannot help but think that Ms. Sayers, as one who deeply appreciated the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth, immediately would have gotten the significance of the day’s branding, and approved it out of more than just respect for her mother Church. For in issuing the commandment after which this day is named — “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (1) — Jesus took on board all the extraordinary acts listed above, identifying His own love with the commandment. He made new Moses’s old “love your neighbor as yourself” (2) not by altering its content, but by actually carrying it out: loving His own to the end (3), to use John’s shorthand. He is, after all, the incarnate Word.

And when the incarnate Word loves His own to the utmost, what does it look like? It looks like breaking bread and blessing wine, like humbling yourself to set aside your outer garments to do a slave’s job, like washing the feet of your own. It looks like teaching, comforting, and praying for your own before you must leave them. It looks like sweating blood in Gethsemane.

Lent invites us to look into a time telescope: to see the Lord Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness following his baptism, and, through Him, to see the great event those forty days recapitulate: Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. In this telescope we see that in his fast, Jesus does for Israel what Israel did not do: make it through the wilderness without grumbling. As Lent concludes in Passiontide, and especially on Maundy Thursday, we look into a second time telescope, which focuses more narrowly, upon one Man in a Garden. He has a decision to make about an erring Bride and a Tree. The Man hears a simple question: “Where are you?” His response will reveal everything there is to know about the quality of his love; and the quality of his love will have its full effect.

(1) St John 13:34 (ESV); (2) Leviticus 19:18; (3) St John 13:1.

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