"Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.'I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:33-35 NRSV)
One of the most moving hymns I learned while studying for the ministry at Harding University is entitled 'The Greatest Commands.' Sung in a cappella four-part harmony, it quotes directly a few verses about love in the Bible. For a sect so rife with division over commands, examples, and necessary inferences (their traditional hermeneutic device) it seems somewhat ironic that they would produce a song like this one.
Love comes in many forms, and is expressed in a number of ways. In all my life I never once heard my father, who passed away a little over 13 years ago, say that he loved me. That just wasn't how he was wired. I never knew his father, my paternal grandfather Charles, but from descriptions he was a serious, quiet man. I suspect that he didn't tell his three sons that he loved them either. Now, I know he loved me. He could have said it, and probably should have said it, but he didn't have to say it. There's no doubt in my mind, and never has been, that he loved me and my brothers. I'm also certain he loved my mother most of all.
My way with my children is different. Partly because of my nature, and how 'huggy' my mother was when I was little, but also due to my experience with my father, I've always been close with my kids. They always get a lot of hugs, and I tell them both that I love them. Even my son, now 16 and already taller than me, gets a hug when he leaves my house to go back to his mother's, or when he's with me on a weekday and heads out for school. If I live long enough to know my grandchildren, you best believe they'll be smothered in grandfatherly hugs and kisses.
Of course I'm familiar with the other so-called 'love languages.' My kids get gifts from me from time to time, and I do them favors when needed. I also make certain to spend time with each of them separately, and both of them together. When I'm gone, they won't have to say that they knew I loved them even though I never said it. There will be no doubt.
In the Gospel reading for today, Maundy Thursday, Jesus is telling his disciples that people will know they are his followers if they love one another as he has loved them. While this theme of 'love' was particularly important in the early Johannine community, it also came up in Pauline writings like 1st Corinthians 13. For all of the church's failure to love people over the centuries, and its acts of genocidal hatred (crusades, colonization, etc), the source material makes it clear that things were to be different.
In the portrayal of Jesus in this passage from the Fourth Gospel, he is preparing his disciples for his betrayal and death. He speaks with them, carries out the symbolic action of foot washing to illustrate his point, and he prays for them in the chapters leading up to his arrest. When he's gone, not just after his death but also after his resurrection and ascension, they won't have him physically present to love them and to be loved in return. Accepting the legendary and deeply theological nature of this account, there remains a point for all of us today.
The night my father died, a call came from one of my mother's neighbors to tell me, at her request. It was devastating. My wife at the time, Christiane, was trying to comfort my while my daughter wailed at the news. My little son, then not even 2, was blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had befallen us or of what he had lost in not being able to form any memories of this grandfather. No, he was just fine, marker in hand, drawing on the walls of the dining room.
Looking down at his goofy, open-mouthed grin as he looked at me, proud of his art and delighted that no one was yelling at him for it, I was comforted. The grief was unbearable, and yet through it I saw this son of mine, and thought of my daughter in the other room, and was grateful that I had them to love. My father is gone, and I dread to think that a day will arrive when I will no longer have my mother (may it be years from now and after much good health on her part), and yet there are my children to love.
Some of us had great, loving parents. Others grew up in deeply dysfunctional homes, in foster care, or being passed off from one family member to another. There's a wide spectrum of experiences between those points. Some of us have kids, and others have opted to skip child-rearing completely. It's all valid. The fact is that pretty much all of us have had people in our lives that we loved and lost. Whether it's our natural birth family, an adoptive family, or another family of our choice, we need to pass that love along.
It's not a command, and it shouldn't have to be. It is, however, one of the enduring intangible works we can produce as human beings, if only we'll put in the time and attention something so valuable deserves.