‘O my Luve is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June; O my Luve is like the melody that’s sweetly played in tune.’
With 1.45 billion speakers, English may be the most commonly spoken language across the world; but it displays a real poverty with the word ‘love’.
It's not that common for St. Valentine to share the same day as Ash Wednesday, but in 2024 the coincidence of converging the essence of sexual attraction with the unconditional love of God at the beginning of Lent provides a pointer to the contrasting splendours of the word ‘love’.
It is, in my mind, the most important of all words, and St. John tells us that it's the very nature of the conscious creator; however, we love a good night out, a glass of fine wine, going out to an amazing show. In English, the word ‘love’ is so broad that we really only notice its absence in human tragedies, disasters and conflict.
In our Thought for this week we will celebrate its presence.
Let’s explore in more depth what we mean by love. English is a language so rich and colourful, the language of Shakespeare and Tennyson, but it displays a rare poverty when considering the word ‘love’. We throw this word about with such abandon that nobody can be really sure of what we mean by it: we love ice cream, we love watching football, we fall in love, we make love, there’s brotherly/sisterly love, we love our children. The Christian Church often resorts to three Greek words to draw a distinction. These are άγάπε (agap-ay), φίλίος (fee-lios) and έρος (eer-os).
άγάπε is the Greek word referring to the love which God has for creation and for humanity. It is the love of which St. John speaks when he writes ‘God is Love’. In human terms it is best understood in the love that a mother has for her child: always giving, never asking, unconditional love. It is so deep that we experience it more as an instinct; it may have an emotional expression in our physical experience but, in human terms, it is not a matter of discretion — our capacity to love in this way is drawn directly from God.
Sometimes we are conscious of άγάπε in those ‘good to be alive’ moments, enjoying life and creation because it is. But it is possible — and it’s good — to let it overflow from us consciously, for this άγάπε is not something to bottle up inside, but to share. In walking down the street, in meeting people in the supermarket, in standing in a queue for the bus — a smile and a kind word is enough to let it overflow. That’s άγάπε in action.
The literal meaning of φίλίος is brotherly or sisterly love, but it’s the easy, casual, ‘give and take’ friendship that we share with people we know well. It is conditional, because if it is not reciprocated it is difficult to maintain and can therefore wither. But φίλίος is a great gift, a wonderful human experience which makes the world tick in the happiness of social relationships. We humans are a naturally gregarious species — isolation is normally not a happy experience — and it is good to work at maintaining relationships with family and friends. But it’s not άγάπε.
Of course, everyone knows what έρος is, symbolised by the figure of Cupid with his bow in Piccadilly Circus. It is physical passion, sexual love: but it is fair to say that it’s sometimes hard to define it as love rather than lust, unless it is enthused by a good helping of both άγάπε and φίλίος. We feel it physically so strong it can move us to incredible lengths and extraordinary feats: and it is essential in marriage. Marriage is a commitment for life and, as such, it cannot rely only on έρος: it is best when all three types of love are present so that when one is waning at least one other, if not both of the others, can take the strain and maintain the commitment. This week's episode of 'The Hypnotist' might also provide some assistance in this respect. In the best of marriages, the άγάπε is so strong that it overflows the couple and passes into the lives of everyone they meet!
But άγάπε should take us so much further than this, because it’s this love which lies at the heart of loving our neighbour as ourselves, no matter how different they may be. All types of community action are grounded in this love, and it is through it that we show our love for creation itself: as the Bible says in Matthew 25, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. That's why community action is at the cutting edge of the Christian faith, and it was well-stated by the headline of an article by Dave Tomlinson, a vicar in Birmingham, in the Church Times in August last year, "The church’s duty to live out ‘a global love’".
It was indeed a tragedy that neither Hamas nor the Israeli leadership received this message during the following months.
So, love cannot be boxed into that single word in the English language: it is, indeed, a many-splendoured thing.
Gavin Oldham OBE