Love Alone is Eternal
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | March 7, 2019Hi friends, our Ash Wednesday sermon began with a poem called “Ozymandias,” which (amongst other things) is about how temporary and fleeting the works of our human egos are: they return to dust. Today, I want to start with a less well-known but complementary poem, one about what is eternal. I discovered it a couple years ago, and even though I don’t know anything else by or about the author, this poem has stayed with me. (Published here.)
Into the Fire, by Gail White
Every love counts, the puppy you were given
At six, the tadpoles that you tried to raise;
Even your silly parents and the siblings
You couldn’t stand were loved on certain days.
The first love of your adolescence, later
Spoken of slightingly as immature,
The love of marriage, even if it ended
In bitterness, the friends that still endure.
Into the mix, put in your charity
To those who had no one but you to love them.
All the loves given, even reluctantly,
Are still our loves. Let’s not make little of them.
They form the only fire that burns on
When sun and moon and stars have packed and gone.
* * *
I like this poem for a lot of reasons, but mostly I like the idea that the love we share and offer the world—however imperfect and awkward it may be—has a sort of cumulative effect on us over time, and that this accumulation is somehow permanent. All those loves, little ones and big ones, even the love of a marriage ended in bitterness, all these loves “form the only fire that still burns on” when everything else has passed away.
This is on my mind in these first days of Lent, while the ashes are still smudged on my thumb and sleeve. In Romans, Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). Death, life, angels, rulers, nor anything else in all creation—this is an exhaustive list of creaturely powers. All of them, it seems, are fleeting, temporary, of secondary importance when compared to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Not even death itself has power over this love.
It would seem, then, that Love alone is eternal.
Like a lot of clergy, the offertory sentence I generally use before communion is from Ephesians 5:2 and goes, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” I like this verse because it reminds us that, for Christians, when we talk about love, we are talking about Jesus Christ. We walk in love as Christ loved us. The love of God in Christ always comes first, so to speak. It’s the condition which makes our own love-walking possible.
Whatever it is we mean when we say that we love, we are referring to the same movement of God’s own life towards the world, the movement whose name is Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Why did God send Jesus? Love. What is love? God’s sending of Jesus.
In the Gospels, we see this love play out in specific episodes. The force behind Gabriel’s message to the Virgin Mary, the force behind that long genealogy leading up to the birth of Jesus in Luke 3, the force behind all the healings and teaching and loaves and fishes and parables—all of that is the manifestation of the infinite love of God moving towards creation through particular words and actions in particular places and times.
Jesus, then, is the name of the infinite, eternal love of God moving into a particular human history. This is good news for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it means that we particular human beings can participate in the eternal, infinite love of God. Like Jesus, each of us always finds ourselves in a particular situation—the grocery store, tee ball practice—never in some abstract arena called “the world.” We have kids, coworkers, folks beside us at church whose names we’ve never bothered to learn. Because of the movement of the infinite love of God into the particular human life of Jesus, our own particularity can now become the site where God’s infinite, eternal love can continue to move. Jesus has paved the way.
To walk in love, then, is to move towards the world around us in the same way as God moves towards the world: as Jesus Christ, whether at tee ball practice or in the grocery store. “To walk in love as Christ loved us” is to participate in the inner life of the Holy Trinity.
We do this imperfectly, fitfully, and usually with a great deal of awkwardness. And sometimes our best efforts at love end in bitterness or drama or strained silence. What I think our poet is getting at, however, is the extent to which we participate in love is the extent to which we become eternal. It makes sense, if you think about it. If walking in love (as Christ loved us) is participating in the inner life of the Holy Trinity—well, what could be better than that? When we love, we become part of God’s Holy Flame, the “only fire that burns on / When sun and moon and stars have packed and gone.”
Whatever awkward or embarrassing or failed loves are in our past, and which ever loves we’re making an effort at in the present, “Let’s not make little of them,” as our poet says. The loves we offer, tarnished and imperfectly motivated as they may be, constitute the shining core of us, the fire that will long outlast the ashes of which we’re made.