The Risk of Loving - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Risk of Loving

Malachi 3: 1-5

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1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

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Some of you, I'm sure, will have seen the 1993 film, Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins.  It is a movie based on a true story: that of the relationship between C.S. Lewis, most famous as the author of the Narnia books, and his wife, Joy Davidman.

They were by all accounts a most unlikely couple.  When they first met, Lewis was a confirmed bachelor; a rather desiccated and emotionally repressed Oxford don, aged in his fifties.  Joy was a forthright Jewish-American divorcee, with two young sons.  And yet, they fell deeply in love.  Sadly, their relationship was marked by tragedy.  By the time that their register office marriage was blessed, in a short ceremony at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, they already knew that her days were numbered.

The film Shadowlands charts all of this with great poignancy.  But there is a particular scene within it, which I would like to describe for you this morning, because it is the reason why I am telling you all this.  After their marriage, during a period of remission in Joy's illness, the two of them are shown having a wonderful few days away together in a country hotel, enjoying one another's company as never before, in glorious weather and surrounded by breath-taking scenery.  All of which culminates in a moment of pure happiness, which Lewis says he wishes to capture for ever.  But that is also the moment when Joy needs him to be able to talk with her about what lies before them: her inevitable death.  And looking ahead to that inescapable event, she says this: 'The pain then is part of the happiness now.  That is part of the deal.'  The pain then is part of the happiness now.  That is part of the deal.

I have always been haunted by that line in the film.   But what exactly did the character of Joy, as she is portrayed there, mean by it?  Her words could, of course, be taken to mean something very dark indeed - namely the suggestion that if ever we experience something good in this life, we shall have to pay for it eventually with something terrible - which is a bleak and monstrous assertion.  But I don't think that that is what was meant at all.

Rather, she was simply observing something that is demonstrably the case: namely that the more deeply we love, the more painful will be the loss of that love, whether through separation, or rejection, or ultimately the finality of death.

The greatest, most wonderful things in life all have a price-tag built into them; a cost that is an intrinsic part of what makes them important.  The pain then is part of the happiness now; that is part of the deal.  Pain and happiness are often integrally linked, precisely because they relate to things that matter to us immensely.

And that is very much the case with the theme of our service today: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; Candlemas.  Candlemas is a curiously bittersweet festival in the Church's calendar.  At one level, it is an occasion for joyful celebration: a high point at which we formally draw to a close the Christmas and Epiphany festivities.  It is the moment at which, as we heard in our Gospel reading, the child Jesus is recognised by the aged Simeon as God's chosen Messiah, the Saviour of Israel.  And significantly, that moment of recognition takes place within the Temple, the sacred heart of Israelite worship; the dwelling place of God.  In the narratives surrounding Christ's birth it is the culminating moment of revelation: Simeon rejoices that he has lived long enough to see the Lord's chosen one, and so he can now die in peace.

And yet, Simeon warns Mary, as part of that same revelation, that her son's astonishing destiny will also have one heck of a price tag attached to it: 'This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.'  And he then addresses her directly with words that are positively chilling: 'A sword will pierce your own soul, too.'  Being the special recipient of God's favour can be a mixed blessing sometimes, as Mary discovers to her cost.  Because it is a universal truth that transcends both time and culture, that the one who loves most also grieves most.

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Malachi foretells a wonderful event: the coming of the Saviour of Israel to his Temple: an event that we later heard fulfilled in the story of Simeon and the Christ child.  For Malachi, the appearance of the Saviour is not like the dramatic arrival of Superman, who appears out of nowhere to provide an instant solution to life's problems.  Rather, the coming of the Messiah is an event before which we should tremble; because the Saviour's power to purify will sear the hearts of those whom he finds; he will bring to light truths that were previously hidden; his coming will bring judgment as well as mercy. 

And how could it be otherwise?  Because radical problems require radical solutions.  Anything less would be simply papering over the cracks.  Our God is a God of bountiful and abundant grace, but never a God of cheap grace.  Because the most important things in life never come cheap.

But it is also worth remembering that the process works the other way round, too.  Just as the best things in life can bring pain in their wake, so, too, the bleakest things in life can sometimes be redeemed in ways that brings new life and new hope - and their worth is all the more powerful and precious precisely because sometimes we can only truly recognise how dark and desiccated our lives have become, when a new kind of light dawns for us. 

Returning to the C.S. Lewis story for a moment, in a similar way Lewis's love for Joy Davidman brought light and love into his life - the life of a dried up old Oxford don - and enabled him for the first time ever truly to live; to flourish; to become more fully the person he really was and could become.  And sometimes it takes the prospect of loss to sharpen our appreciation of what we have.  As Lewis himself wrote in 1957, in a letter to Dorothy L. Sayers, 'We soon learn to love what we know we must lose.'

In his poem 'One Foot in Eden' the Orkney poet Edwin Muir, who suffered from terrible bouts of black depression himself - so he knew precisely what he was talking about - described in very powerful and striking terms how even the fruits of the Garden of Eden are no match for the far richer produce that can emerge from the most desolate wasteland.  He wrote this:

...Famished field and blackened tree
Bear fruits in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love.
Strange blessings never in paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

The Methodist writer on spirituality, Neville Ward, once wrote: 'we all live hurt and hurting lives ... but our lives are also the kind that are shaken periodically by beauty and other intensity of happiness, and again and again we are saved by love.' 

Sometimes it is from precisely within the deepest darkness that new light first dawns.  And loving always entails risk: the risk of rejection; the risk of loss.

Some of you may be familiar with the extraordinary poem by Janet Rand entitled simply Risk, which goes like this:

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk being called sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self.
To place your ideas and your dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naïve.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, and becomes nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but he simply cannot learn, feel change, grow or love.
Chained by his certitude, his is a slave; he has forfeited his freedom.
Only the one who risks is truly free.

Amen.

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