I visited a friend in the hospital who had gone through an ordeal that left him with the possibility of losing his life. As we talked, he told me that he felt so sorry for his wife because she had stayed with him night and day, and hadn’t had a good night’s rest in days. I said, “Mister, you don’t have to feel sorry for her, because she was doing what she wanted to do. You couldn’t keep her away.” And, when he was discharged from the hospital, he said he seemed to “see” his wife and children for the first time. It’s strange how much good can come out of illness. Sometimes, it opens our eyes.
Love is often like that. It transforms. It does what it has to do; no two ways about it. The Greeks had a fancy word for it—“Agape”—to describe unselfish, unself-centered love. It asks nothing in return. Paul describes Agape in his letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 13), “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on having its own way.”
The Greeks had several words for love in the New Testament. Another one was “Eros”, which included the erotic, sensual side of love. Both Agape and Eros are God-given, and are natural and necessary for the betterment and ongoing of life itself. But the thing about Eros is that it can take over and masquerade as Agape love. In our society, Eros often seems like a naughty child acting out and acting up in ways that are self-destructive and harmful to others. It is often “love gone wild”; ruthless, undisciplined and exploitative. Yet, Eros can be beautiful. The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament describes a more positive side of Eros. Listen to this: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Your eyes are like doves behind the veil; your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Giliad (how romantic); your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing. Upon my bed at night I sought him who my soul loves. You have ravished my heart my bride; you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes. How sweet is your love.” (Selected verses from the Song of Solomon) Some of it will make you blush!
The two basic emotional needs of human beings are to love and to be loved. Some know how to be loved, but don’t know how to love another person. We are born selfish and some never get over it. You have to be intentional about Agape. Having counseled married couples for decades, I have seen sex masquerading as love many times. It is conditional and says, “I will love you as long as you please me.” A person may not actually say this, but it’s there nevertheless. Eros needs Agape to rescue it from pure narcissism A narcissist is preoccupied with him or herself to the exclusion of everyone else.
But back to Agape love—the highest level of human emotion. It’s the opposite of using another person to get what you want. This kind of love is responsible and generous, and sometimes, extravagant. Look at the story in Mark’s gospel (13:1-9) about a woman who went to see Jesus when he was in Bethany. She went with a bottle of very expensive perfume to anoint Jesus for burial. Those guys sitting around were upset, and asked why it wasn’t sold and given to the poor? Jesus told them that they would always have the poor, but to leave her alone because she has done a beautiful and unselfish thing. So, we can give thanks for love when it expresses itself in wonderful and life-producing ways. Paul said this kind of love never fails.
And now, in honor of St. Valentine’s day, I submit the following:
What does it mean to say, “I love you”?
In our society, to say, “I love you,” could mean almost anything. But within the context of Judeo-Christian values, it means: I accept you as you are. I look upon you as a separate identity and you will always remain a person in your own right. It means that I will not seek to change you. I will simply enjoy that which already is, and I will anticipate with joy all that can be as we grow and change together. Above all else, it means that I will care for you as I can for no other, without condition, except to have the privilege of returning your love and allowing you to bring out the best within me.
What does it mean to say, “I love you”? It means I will care about you unselfishly as long as we live, and if God permits, I will continue to love you eternally. Amen.