When I was asked and gladly assented to do this week’s Dark Devotional, I thought I would do my usual thing and try to connect all three readings, and I will do that briefly. But writing this on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 77th anniversary of the liberation pulls me to focus on love.
Love does run through all the readings. Jeremiah says, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you. Being loved is about being known to your bones and sinews, to the centre of your being, and having it all, not just the ‘desirable’ parts, be held. As the psalmist says today: By You I have been [b]upheld from birth; You are He who took me out of my mother’s womb. The psalmist knows they are loved by G-d and they love back with trust, praise, gratitude, and singing of G-d’s salvation — their way of sharing G-d’s love with others.
Yet somehow, all this, the way we put it in a box of niceness, sweetness, gratefulness, happiness, sugar coating it and wrapping it with a bow, feels like only the tiniest part of love.
International Holocaust Memorial Day (and later in the year, Yom HaShoah) reminds us that our boxed and wrapped love isn’t enough; it isn’t even an iota of what is needed. Most often, it looks like So all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth…until He tells you a truth you don’t want to hear —today, that could be challenging you on racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, your thoughts about the poor, how you treat your family and friends —and suddenly you’re all filled with [m]wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff.
Newsflash: That ain’t love.
So what is?
Well, it’s a good thing today’s readings include the famous treatise on love in 1 Corinthians. I am going to do something a bit unusual: I’m going to go through it adding commentary, trying to see if we can work out what love is.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body [a]to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Well, now, that’s true. If you give the perfect gift, but give it with secret resentment, that somehow spoils it. So, what about giving it happily, proud of your generosity? That’s sounding brass territory too, as is giving it when you’re grasping at the relationship. Oh yes, and love isn’t doing something because G-d told you to do it and you’re winning brownie points. Love is giving — a gift, to the poor —with both hands and heart open, with no expectation of return. I most often see love in the response I hear from atheist friends when asked about their choices to give or treat others well: “It’s…just what you do.”
As for prophecy and truth, if you speak it without love, you are walking in dangerous territory. The truth is not to be told brutally, carelessly, or with glee for the pain it causes, but with care and an understanding of how the person can best take it in.
4 Love suffers long
Doesn’t it just…but not by staying in an abusive or co-dependent relationship. Sometimes the best way to love is to leave.
and is kind;
True, but bear in mind that kind and nice are not the same thing. Nice is pleasing others, being agreeable; it’s externally driven for personal benefit. Kindness proceeds from an internal moral compass for the benefit of another. It might be nice if I didn’t tell someone that they are driving people away, but it wouldn’t be kind, because they would carry on suffering and causing others to suffer. The question is how to tell them. (See truth and prophecy above.)
love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not [b]puffed up;
Agreed, and being puffed up is tetrodotoxin to all relationships.
5 does not behave rudely,
Mmmmmm, not so sure about that. Naughty inside jokes are a marker of love. And sometimes the only way to set a proper boundary – a loving action – is to be rude, especially when you’ve been polite the previous ten times.
does not seek its own,
If you’re speaking about selfish ends, indeed. If you’re talking about living a full life, finding one’s vocation, one’s place in the tapestry, then I think you might be wrong there.
is not provoked,
Oh really? Are you telling me love isn’t provoked when Black people are murdered by cops, or rich countries hoard vaccines, or when people abuse and enslave one another? GTFOH, mate.
[c]thinks no evil;
Paul swings…and misses! You’d better believe it thinks evil of Nazis, fascists, the KKK, dictators, abusers, paedophiles, and the rest. But it won’t do evil to them.
6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Yes, with the exception of abusive and co-dependent relationships noted above.
8 Love never fails.
Even when it seems it does, it’s still unfolding.
But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
Yes —even prophecies apparently fulfilled will disappear into a bigger story, just as knowledge will continue to unfold. (Newton’s laws, but also quantum mechanics; ordered space, but also black holes and their event horizons)
10 But when that which is [d]perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
I would say ‘whole’, rather than ‘perfect’, but perhaps that’s a quibble. Individual drops will become part of the larger ocean.
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Someone is going to say something about ‘be like these children’, but there is a difference between childlike and childish. The latter needs to be subsumed in growth, just as down is covered by feathers capable of flight.
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
Or if we are to hark back to Jeremiah and the psalm: then shall I love, even as I am loved. Oh, that gives me goosebumps in the best way.
So, what would I say about Paul, Corinthians, and love? Not a bad start, but not the whole story either. And it’s still not enough for the times we are in, nor is it enough for the Holocaust we remember today, so I’d like to add a few things:
Love is fierce.
Love is unyielding in its pursuit of truth, justice, rehabilitation, and reconciliation.
Love is stopping to listen rather than becoming defensive when someone calls you out on your stuff, and the more systemic stuff of racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, etc.
Love knows when to walk away.
Love walks alongside others, it doesn’t try to merge with them.
Love knows none of us are free until all of us are free.
Love holds the space and conditions to allow others to unfold into the person G-d dreamt they would be when He created them.
Love is hiding the hunted, even when it means your death if caught.
Love is messy.
Love will deadhead relationships and situations that prevent flourishing.
Love will tell you what’s what in the way you are most able to hear it.
Love is resistance – overt or covert – against those who would rule in hatred and fear, extinguishing lives and light.
Love will shove you off the cliff when you are ready to fly.
Love will lift a sword and go to war against evil when necessary.
Love expresses itself as rage and sorrow as well as joy and delight.
Love looks at fascists with flaming eyes and says, ‘Not this time, motherfucker.’
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Amen. For while I live in hope and faith, it is love I trust to act on the words, ‘Not this time, motherfucker…
…and never again.’
Irim Sarwar is an American of IndoPak ancestry now living in the UK who was born Muslim and became Catholic via teaching at a Modern Orthodox Jewish school. She has also catalogued books in a Dominican priory, worked in quality assurance, and is currently a churchwarden and freelance copyeditor/proofreader. Spiritual mongrel. Believes in hybrid vigour in all things, especially journeys of faith.