Love Is Strong as Death
Ash Wednesday; February 14, 2018
Song of Songs 8:6-7
One of my fraternity brothers made a choice when we were in college; he wrote me a note about it. Many years later I was talking with someone who was still in touch with him and that person said he was still living by that choice. The choice was not to allow anyone in. He would be a decent, sociable person, but he would not allow himself to love or be loved, because he knew it would lead to pain.
He was right, of course. Love does lead to pain. A writer – I believe it was Anne Lamott – said after her dog died that she didn't want to get another dog, because she "never wanted to hurt that much again." Of course, she did get another dog and did risk hurting that much again. Some weeks after Kathleen's Aunt Anne died we went to visit Uncle Jerry, her widower. While we were eating dinner, Jerry said, "The agony is past, but the ache persists." A book on friendship that I read many years ago began with the assertion that friendship and death go together.
Love and mortality go together. Every important relationship in our lives will be lost: death or divorce or separation will inevitably tear you apart. And yet we love. Here are two good reasons to love; you can think of others, but two is enough for this evening.
The joy of loving and of being loved is worth the pain of loss. I think my fraternity brother was wrong to close himself off from love. Yes, we hurt, sometimes we hurt terribly and sometimes the hurt lasts years. And it resurfaces at the most unwanted times. But then we remember a smile, a word said at just the right time, a hug or a kiss, or a wag of the tail, and we are glad that we loved and we were loved. You have all probably heard the famous lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all." He wrote those in a long poem in memory of his dearest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. The two men were very close, and Tennyson's younger sister and Hallam were quite in love with one another. They all spent Christmases and other times together over their four-year friendship until Hallam died suddenly on a trip to Vienna. It took Alfred sixteen years of grief and of work until he finally published his poem, "In Memoriam A. H. H." 'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.
And the other reason is that there is one love that does not die but is eternal, and that is the love of God. God's love for God's own creation, God's love for God's people, God's love for each of us here this evening cannot be lost, cannot be destroyed. We can turn away from God, but God does not cease to love. All our loves find their fullness in the love of God. For God so loved the world, that God sent the only Son… When we have dinner with Christ, we remember how God has loved us, and loves us still, and does not give up on us.
I know that I have not told you anything you do not already know, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves that love is strong as death, as the song says, that if we had to choose between love and wealth, we would choose love. And so I chose that as our theme today, when we have the odd juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day. Actually, it is not so odd, since Valentine himself was a martyr. For love of God he would not renounce his faith in Christ, even though the Emperor demanded it. He was a healer and an evangelist; he would pray for the sick and when they recovered would lead them to Jesus Christ. He would not stop and so he was sentenced to death. He was executed on February 14, 269, which is why February 14 is St. Valentine's Day. (You know that Christians honor our heroes not on the day they were born, but on the day they died.) What does St. Valentine have to do with romantic love? Nothing, really. But in the Middle Ages, people believed the birds started choosing their mates in the middle of February; February has 28 days and so the middle of February is the fourteenth. That is how Valentine's Day became associated with romantic love.
And, of course, the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19c). Those are the customary words at the imposition of ashes. It seems to me almost perfection that the ashes of Ash Wednesday and the hearts of Valentine's Day come together. The only thing possibly even better is that whenever Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine's Day it means that Easter falls on April Fool's Day. I can't wait.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal; but love is strong as death: romantic love, friendship, family and all loves are strong as death. The love of God is stronger than death: the love of God is eternal.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master