It’s been a peculiar Lent. The Great Pandemic of the Year of Our Lord two thousand and twenty has had the effect, for most of us, of bringing our lives to a screeching halt. In quarantine we’ve been forced to forego the company of our friends, our regular paychecks, and even Sunday Mass. The Lenten sacrifices of sweets or TV-watching in past years suddenly seem childish in comparison.
This new perspective touches upon Good Friday and Easter, too. How wonderful to “see” the age-old drama with a freshly purified vision cleared of all surfeit and excess. Perhaps we will be struck with the utter romance of God’s ultimate gesture of love on the cross, and consider what that means for our lives, an example we no longer seem to be able to understand, much less make any attempt to follow.
Where has romantic love — that most distinctively human leap into complete surrender to the “other” — gone? It’s hard to find in current culture as it is reflected back to us. Eros has been downgraded to mere sex.
The nonstop barrage of “content” from our computer screens, which reflects our civilization but also forms it, presents only the act of sex as uniting and establishing a relationship between two people, like two ships colliding in the night but making only a ghostly impression on each other.
The impact is abrupt, self-centered, emotionally and physically fruitless, and given its shallowness, almost immediately unsatisfying. The participants over and again fail to quench the loneliness that afflicts their restless souls, and the salt water of carnal pleasure leaves them thirstier, not less.
There is real sadness in this for all involved, no matter how thick-skinned constant exposure to a coarsened culture has made them. The voluptuary consciously rejects love as a distraction from sensual gratification, perhaps. But the common man, and the common woman, are simply settling for what they can glean from the mostly barren ground of postmodern life.
Raised in the awful cynicism produced by the collapse of marriage and the family, “falling in love” appears nothing more than a mirage, or a kind of pathetic self-deception. If it ever really existed, it is hardly to be expected now, when all vows have proven breakable and even the most glorious emotions have been identified as sudden surges of serotonin in our heads.
I believe that the idea of romantic love, with its lofty airs of magnanimity, chivalry, and total commitment, has leached out of our culture, just as our understanding of God has.
We have forgotten that it has been the particular insistence of God throughout time that we learn to love as he loves, with wild abandon, complete surrender, and perfect fidelity. The Old Testament is a long, plaintive love song from God to a capricious people, and Jesus in the Gospels sings the same melody, rising to the piercing, utterly shattering note of his passion on the cross.
Christianity teaches us what love, loving, looks like. And it also teaches us that Love himself has acted decisively to transform each of us, placing the capacity to love with the same prodigality in our own natures.
The knowledge of these heavenly concepts may be missing or incomplete for many, but the search for perfect union goes on, fueled by the inward, unshakable suspicion that each of us is capable of glorious, shining Love.
The psalmist’s “I am my beloved’s . . .” is written not only in the Scriptures but on our hearts, and by the same author. We are not creatures of selfish appetite and satiation, but creatures capable of magnificent self-gift, able to ignore the loud clamoring of our egos in favor of the quietest claim of the beloved.
And when we do “fall in love”? What then? C.S. Lewis wrote about that moment: “In one high bound [romantic love overleaps] the massive wall of our selfhood: [makes] appetite itself altruistic, [tosses] personal happiness aside as a triviality and [plants] the interests of another in the center of our being. … It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love himself rules in us without a rival.”
If God on the cross presents us with the grandeur of passionately selfless love, his Easter rising and his promise to have us join him for a joyful eternity are a model for marriage. Perfect, indissoluble union is what God wants with us, and marriage is the mystical image he chose to help us understand.
Now, isn’t that romantic?