Love changes everything

This week’s blog explores what it means to call Jesus, God’s ‘Beloved Son’, and how ‘Love’ is an appropriate theme to delve into at the beginning of Lent.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Stanley Spencer: Christ in the Wilderness – The Scorpion

On my computer system I have a collection of about 50 quotes on ‘love’. Some of them are from the Bible and  explicit Christian tradition, but many of them are not – such  as the title for this week’s blog ‘Love changes everything’ which comes from the musical Aspects of Love (beautifully sung by Michael Ball at Michael Ball – Love Changes Everything – YouTube). Most of them I agree with – though some are part of the collection precisely because I disagree with them e.g. Love Story’s line ‘Love never has to say it’s sorry’. (Absolutely not true!)

I have used the ‘love collection’ on a number of occasions when I have been leading a retreat or quiet day. I scatter them (writ large) around a room and invite people to wander around and choose their favourite and say ‘why’ they like it. (And in some contexts also to select those they disagree with!).  The idea would also work (perhaps in a slightly adapted way) in an all age worship service.  If any of the readers of this blog would like or find it useful to have my ‘love collection’ – drop me an email and I will gladly send you the list of quotes.

I am writing this blog on Ash Wednesday – so Lent is very much in my mind. The focus of the blog is of course the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, Lent 1, and particularly the Gospel, Mark 1.9-15. In the space of these few verses we hear of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s account of his time in the wilderness, and the announcement of the beginning of his public ministry. It is interesting how in this lectionary year (Year B), various permutations of verses from Mark 1.1-15 appear several times over the course of the year (in a similar way as also do verses from John 1.1-18). It may be a challenge to the preacher to think of something ‘new’ to say on each occasion when Mark 1 crops up!

The word I myself want to focus on for now is ‘Love’.  It is drawn from those words addressed to Jesus at his baptism, ‘You are my beloved Son’ (Mark 1.11).  Lent and Love belong together. I believe that profoundly. I have to confess (appropriately of course on Ash Wednesday) that some traditional Lenten hymns leave me cold. The first hymn marked ‘Lent’ in my school hymnbook (Songs of Praise) was Forty Days and Forty Nights. We used to sing it again… and again… and again. Ever since my school days I associate it with Lent. It has got the word ‘dreary’ in it, and that was also my reaction to that particular hymn. It is ‘just about’ redeemed by the final verse with its ‘good’ line speaking of ‘the eternal Eastertide’. But there is nothing, directly at least, about ‘love’ in that particular hymn. The second hymn in the Songs of Praise Lenten collection though is the Percy Dearmer song Now quit your care… which was set to the beautiful French carol melody Quittez Pasteurs. Sometimes we got to sing that one instead, and I always enjoyed it when we did. Love is mentioned in both its first verse – and its last. The first verse encourages us, ‘Come buy with love the love most high’ and the final verse assures us that ‘love shall be the prize’. I particularly cherish its third verse, which sums up for me the goal of Lent:

To bow the head,
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes
His beauty to come nigh.
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

Back to that baptismal acclamation of Jesus as ‘the Beloved Son’. The same phrase is used of Jesus at his transfiguration (Mark 9.7), and, by implication in the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (Mark 12.6). Its three-fold repetition at the beginning, middle and near the end of Mark’s Gospel suggests its importance for the Gospel’s understanding of who Jesus was.  It is possible, even likely, that several Old Testament themes are intended to resonate through the phrase, but I think that the primary resonance that we are intended to see in these words is the story of  Isaac, the Old Testament’s archetypal ‘beloved son’ (Genesis 22.2). Isaac was almost sacrificed precisely because he was so loved. There are quite a few hints, in various books of the New Testament, that the early Christians drew on the story of Isaac when they were reflecting on the meaning of the death of Christ. Jesus was the ‘beloved Son’ who was called to travel one stage further than Isaac had been required to go. There would be no ‘ram caught in the thicket’ as a last-minute ‘let out’ for him: rather he was both Son, and Lamb. (I have written elsewhere at much greater length on the ‘Isaac’ motif in the New Testament which I find fascinating: I think for example it underlies the iconic verse John 3.16 ‘God so loved the world’…)

For now though, in this context, what I think is important to say, is that Jesus’ identity as ‘beloved’ somehow enables his ministry, and his relationships, both with human beings and more widely with creation. We have become increasingly aware over the years of the way that a child’s early sense of being loved (or not) can influence the rest of their life, and the possibility of making healthy relationships with others. It is the fact that he is the Beloved Son, which enables Jesus’ deep trust in his father and allows those words in Gethsemane, ‘Abba, Father… not what I want, but what you want’ (Mark 14.36) eventually to be said.

And it also somehow undergirds his experience in the wilderness. I enjoy the brevity of Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, and resist reading it through the eyes of Luke or Matthew. Jesus is ‘driven out’ (strong word) into the wilderness to mark the beginning of the New Exodus that he had come to inaugurate. The ‘wild beasts’ remind me of the ‘peaceable kingdom’ of Isaiah 11.6-9, which speaks of harmony within creation, though I have to say that I do think that lions, wolves and leopards may get a bit of a raw deal in that process.  I expect that many of you are aware of at least some of the pictures in the series painted by Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness. Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s lovely book Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the Paintings by Stanley Spencer has made the collection even better known. I think that Mark’s note about Jesus’ time in the wilderness ‘with the wild beasts’ (Mark 1.13) underlies several of the paintings, especially perhaps the painting of Christ with the Scorpion (see above). Is it not because of his own experience of being ‘beloved’ that the figure of Christ in the painting can treat this small but fearsome creature with such care and compassion? Love changes everything!

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