The Word This Weekend – February 11, 2018
“Lent is for Lovers”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
Then a cloud overshadowed them [on the mountaintop], and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, whom I love without reserve -- listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
[Jesus said, on the night of his betrayal,] “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)
[Paul wrote,] “Though I may speak in the languages of mortals and of angels, but without having love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And though I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith -- enough to move mountains, but without having love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
The Epiphany Season for this year is nearly over, hitting its crescendo with the mysterious story of Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. This weekend is also the gateway to the next major season of the Church Year – the Season of Lent. So I’m going to jump ahead a bit and bridge these two festivals, under the theme “Lent is for Lovers.”
“Why,” you may ask, “Lent for Lovers?” Well, one principal reason is the 2018 Calendar. This year, in a rather unusual conjoining of the dates, the beginning of Lent – Ash Wednesday – coincides with that annual romantic festival – Valentine’s Day. At first glance, I can’t think of a worse confluence of themes and emotions. Valentine’s Day cards, candies, lingerie and trinkets clog the shelves of retail stores (as they have since the day after Christmas, for crying out loud), driving couples to plan their various evenings of libations and affections, and leaving a lot of the rest of us feeling either insecure or critical of all the emotions and expectations of “Cupid’s Day,” as it falls upon us again this year.
Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be about the least romantic observance imaginable. With its dark images of penitence, sorrow and mortality (“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”) – this day seems to be more about sackcloth and ashes than of hearts and flowers. Plus, if some recent conversations with congregants are any indication, there’s a major scheduling crisis in play this year. “I won’t be at the evening service this Ash Wednesday, Pastor. It was either come to church or go to dinner – and [name] will never forgive me if I make the wrong choice!” Or, alternately, “If I get my ashes early in the day, can I wash them off before I go to the Valentine’s dinner? That ashy cross will be a real downer at the restaurant – and even worse later!” Oh, the deep ethical quandaries we face at the intersection of calendars ecclesial and secular…
But, chin up, you lovers, wherever you are -- for I’m writing to untie the Gordian Knot of “Valentine’s vs. Ash Wednesday 2018,” and just in time for this Wednesday, and beyond. And it’s all to be found in that wonderful yet mysterious four-letter word: LOVE.
Well, it’s a five-letter word, really. The Greek word AGAPÉ, one of five words that Greek uses to express what we English-speakers try to encompass with that one word “LOVE.” And here they are, in brief:
- Mania: this word, properly rendered “obsession,” is occasionally used in the NT, and, while not specifically used for expressing “love” in scripture, it does express for the Greeks what you imagine it might – an insane, crazed preoccupation. Or, as some romantics might put it, “I’m madly in love!”
- Eros: Our second word is perhaps the closest to the imagery of Valentine’s and its traditions (and expectations). While it never appears in the NT, we all know what it’s about. Its connotations are wrapped up in words like passion, ardor, intimacy, and the like. Or, as we veterans of the Sixties would have said (and spelled) it: LUV!
- Phileo: This word is far more common in the Greek Scriptures (25 occurrences), and is a very important way to express love. Think of the City of Philadelphia – “City of brotherly love.” This word means deep friendship, kinship, familial belonging. It’s the love our hearts may communicate to and through us when we peer into the bassinette, or grieve at the casket. It’s the swelling of pride we may feel on graduation day, or the sense of destitution at the loss of a sister or brother who falls from our grasp. It is, in brief, that connection that tells us that we are not alone, that someone belongs to us, attached at the soul, joined heart to heart.
- Storge: another Greek word for love, similar in some ways to This word is properly understood as love one would have for dependents or kinfolk. Variants on this word occur only twice in the New Testament.
- Agapé: This is the principal Greek word for what we render “love” in English. The Latin translation of this word, Caritas, has led to the King James rendering of “charity” in many parts of that NT translation. It is found 117 times in the Greek Scriptures, and always with the same meaning. Agapé means, “self-giving love.” It connotes love that forgets its own interests, and offers up itself for the other. It does for others without the expectation of payment or return. To quote St. Paul in his first letter to the communities at Corinth, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” When Christ or his emissaries speak “love talk,” this is the love to which they refer. This is the ground and substance of LOVE, Gospel-style.
And that, my friends, is why Lent is for Lovers. Beyond the transitory and the romantic, surpassing the hearts, candies and flowers, long after the ardor of youth or the stirrings of the loins have had their day, this is the love that matters, and the love that lasts. Far above the manic, or the erotic, or even the familial, the concept that Lent proclaims and symbolizes is nothing more and nothing less than LOVE -- this Agapé we receive from the loving heart of God, this Agapé we discover in the self-giving Cross of the Christ, this Agapé we are called to express in daily service to our neighbor, no matter how lovable (or not) that neighbor may be.
Yes, Lent is for Lovers. And, incidentally, it is the key to understanding the texts and themes of this Transfiguration weekend, as it flows into the deep purple of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Journey.
As Mark relates the experience of three disciples on the high mountain, as they marvel at the appearance of Moses and Elijah on either side of their metamorphosed Master, they hear these words: Then a cloud overshadowed them [on the mountaintop], and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love -- listen to him!” (9:7). They, and we, are reminded that Christ is God’s beloved, dearly cherished by Abba, sent to be the manifesting epiphany of the God of self-giving love.
Similarly, that Beloved One, on the night of his betrayal, as his prepares to shoulder the Passion and the Cross – not for his own benefit but for the life of the world, says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)
And, in the generation following his resurrection, the Apostle Paul can summarize the deep, abiding import of Agapé for all who would bear the name “Christ-ian,” -- “Though I may speak in the languages of mortals and of angels, but without having love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And though I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith -- enough to move mountains, but without having love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
So there you have it. Lent is for Lovers. What you’ll do with it I don’t know. And, whatever you decide, don’t blame me. Maybe you’ll put off the big dinner for Thursday (and not Tuesday, ‘cause that’s Shrove Tuesday, when we’ll chow down on pancakes and gumbo, and burn our ashes for the coming day’s services). Perhaps you’ll leave on those ashes, as a reminder that love – Christ’s love that is -- conquers all – the mortal and the immortal – both as a reminder to yourself and as a testimony to others.
More importantly, I hope you’ll grasp this “Lent for Lovers” idea even after the ashes have swirled in the sink, and the great sojourn of the Forty Days begins in earnest. Because Love is what should be at the heart of Lent anyway. Not self-centered “giving up” of things, but love-centered giving over of things to the service of others and the love of God. The disciplines of Lent can easily become just as manic and self-serving as any other human endeavor – and especially when we imagine these practices might win us some sort of divine favor or advantage. No, not this Lent. This year let’s forget ourselves, our needs, our demands and our conditions. Let’s commend ourselves and one another to honest prayer, heartfelt service, unfettered forgiveness, selfless giving and abiding worship. Let’s examine our crass substitutes for the Agapé Christ both exemplifies and embodies, and commends to his followers to practice as our way of live.
Join us in worship this weekend, and across the Lenten Path, as we learn again the language of faith, and dare to rejoin the journey of faith and following – to serve and speak the Gospel to all people, as all people, in harmony, respect, and self-offering love for every seeking soul. Because, as we now know all too well: LENT IS FOR LOVERS!
With You in God’s Good Work,