Bottom line: W.H. Auden said that only God could ask us to love our crooked neighbor with all our crooked heart. Everyone has flaws, even mothers. But Jesus calls us all to his great commandment, Love one another as I have loved you.
"Love one another as I have love you."
Reflecting on this call to love, the poet W.H. Auden said that only God could ask human beings to "love their crooked neighbor with all their crooked heart."*
Auden wrote those words after World War II - a time when the world had seen the failure of love on an immense scale. Plans to establish heaven on earth resulted in the opposite. Many people had become cynical. In the midst of that cynicism, Auden rediscovered his childhood faith. And he recognized that Christian love is not sentimental, but rather as hard as nails: Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart.
I have a tiny smile because I want apply this to Mother's Day. Like many of you, I grew up at a time when people were reacting against the sentimentality around motherhood. It was popular to hear accounts of terrible mothers. People joined therapy groups that required talk about failures of one's parents, especially the shortcomings of mothers.
As Christians this was no big news. We already knew that original sin deeply affects every person. To use Auden's phrase, we all have a "crooked heart." That applies even to mothers. If there is an exception in this congregation, I apologize. But so far I have not ran into a perfect mother.
Now, I was blessed with a darn good mother. She had many wonderful qualities and she made sacrifices about which I only know a tiny part. God gave me and my siblings a very good mother. Still, she was not perfect. She had defects that - if she gave rein to them - would have spelled disaster. She was a flawed human being - and she gave birth to more of the same.
Jesus provides the one exception to the pattern of human crookedness - and by a singular grace he extended that freedom from sin to his mother.
This does not mean Jesus had an easy time loving us. To rescue someone from the mud (or worse) costs more for a man wearing a clean suit of clothes. For Jesus it cost infinitely more. He alone saw our full misery and arrogance, yet loved us - and continues to do so.
Sometimes people describe the difficulty of loving a certain person. "How can I love someone who is a complete narcissist?" The answer is: start with the one you see each morning in the mirror.
Jesus does not say to love the loveable. That's instinct. My dog loves those who show affection and bring treats. That's a nice love. But Jesus calls us to something more: to love others as he love us.
When it comes to the crunch, we can only love that way if Jesus puts his love into our hearts. That's the secret true lovers understand. That is the secret that exceptional parents realize. That is the secret simple Christians hold. Not that we are such selfless people, but that God first loves us - in Jesus.
To understand this love, I encourage you to read Pope Benedict's encyclical letter titled Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). In the first section the Holy Father speaks favorably about a kind of love called eros. It is a love which seems to impose itself upon the human person. Although this love can take many forms, its great archetype is the love between a man and a woman. That love involves both body and soul. It opens a person to a promise of fidelity which seems irresistible. All other loves, at first glance, seem pale by comparison.
As powerful as this love seems, it has a tendency to wane - even to become destructive. The Holy Father explains how eros love needs to be purified by a different kind of love, agape. While eros is an ascending love, agape descends upon a person from above. St. John says to us today, "In this is love; not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us." This descending love makes possible true self-giving or self-sacrifice.
To love as Jesus loves us requires grace, a gift from above. W.H. Auden made that clear when he said only God could ask us to love our crooked neighbor with all our crooked heart. We are flawed, even mothers. But Jesus calls us to his great commandment, Love one another as I have loved you. Amen.
*Quote by Ross Douthat in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, p. 20.
From Archives: (Sixth Easter, Year B)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
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