Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday: Manifestations of Love

Grieving barn swallow by Wilson Hsu

Love is a suitable theme for Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent today. It’s a time of reflection leading up to Easter. We mark this day by posting the following meditation by Atlanta writer Trudie Barreras, a member of First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta.

Photos of a grieving bird remind her of a scene from my novel Jesus in Love: At the Cross, which tells the story of Christ’s Passion from a queer viewpoint.

Manifestations of Love
by Trudie Barreras

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him may not perish, but have eternal life. --John 3:16
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. --1 John 4:16
After receiving two items in the e-mail this morning based on the love of animals for humans and for each other, I had to revisit a topic I’ve spoken of often. I have long understood that there is only one factor in the universe that speaks completely and totally of God’s presence, and that is love in all its many manifestations. I’ve wanted to write a brief meditation based on part of Kittredge Cherry’s incredible novel Jesus in Love: At the Cross, and this seems the time to do so.

The section I’ve chosen is towards the end of this book, and imagines a possible scene between Jesus and Satan during Christ’s time in Gehenna after the Crucifixion but before the Resurrection. Not to make the quote too long, but to set the scene, Jesus and Satan have confronted each other, and have battled, and Jesus is on the point (in his human nature) of satisfying Satan’s will that he “hit, hate and kill”. Then, to quote directly, Jesus says:

“I forgive you, Brother. And I forgive myself.” (At the Cross, p. 238)

Cherry goes on, however, in some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever encountered, to the following discussion:
The small amount of love that we exchanged was enough to topple his kingdom. I hurtled back towards the realm of solid light. I careened through a galaxy where the name of every human soul was spelled out in starlight, purging sin from human cellular memories as I went. The souls came untangled. In their newfound freedom, they looked to me like an omni-dimensional tapestry of stars shooting beams of energy to every other soul, with the love between them lasting always.

In a flash, I comprehended a great truth: Once you love someone, that love lasts forever in the universe and never ends. Satan’s big lie was that hatred, fear, sin and death can sometimes conquer love. No. Time makes them fade, while love endures forever. Love – love in any form whatsoever, any love that is ever loved – remains and is gradually filling the vast expanse of the universe. (At the Cross, p. 239)
The two little items that I received via e-mail were the story of a dog who showed his love for his sick mistress by covering her with his cherished toys, and pictorial story of a bird that tried to save his injured mate and then grieved inconsolably when she died. There are, of course, innumerable stories about the various manifestations of love encountered in the animal kingdom, and humans are slowly beginning to realize that we don’t have a monopoly on experiencing and expressing it. Although the first part of the quotation from Cherry’s book cited above seems to specify human love, the second part universalizes it. And of course the quotation from the Gospel of John says, “God so loved the world,” and doesn’t limit it to humankind.

Of the manifestations of love that are obvious to everyone, then, certainly the most basic is nurturing love. This was demonstrated very clearly in the two stories I’ve referred to – and is certainly most beautifully manifest not only in the human context, but in the divine as well. God nurtures the entirety of creation moment by moment; indeed, nothing would exist at all if God didn’t nurture it. Again, referring to Cherry’s work, in both novels of the “Jesus in Love” sequence, Jesus visualizes himself as literally “nursing” the souls of his followers, and eventually of all humanity. In her description of the Last Supper, she profoundly links Christ’s “giving of his substance” in the Eucharist with this overall nurturance.

A second manifestation of love is fidelity based on trust. This, too, is easy to see in the animal world. The story of the bird who stayed by his mate even after her death, and numerous similar stories of beloved pets who stay by their humans, likewise shows this. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that when we get into the realm of human interactions with one another, this simple fidelity is all too often lacking, as is the trust that sustains it. Too often, people are guilty of betrayal and cruelty. However, stories are often told of pets, especially dogs, who remain faithful even though their masters abuse or neglect them.

Which leads to the final manifestation of love I want to discuss here, the one emphasized in the quotation from “At the Cross.” The manifestation that Jesus seems to have brought to us most forcefully is forgiveness in its ultimate glory. Again, as with fidelity, other animals sometimes seem to be able to demonstrate this in differing degrees, but even they seem to fall short at times. I have had cats that took a long time to “forgive” me for going away and leaving them for a weekend, and one cat even “punished” me for prohibiting her from using a piece of furniture as a scratching post by deliberately pissing on my pillow. However, again it is we humans who have the most difficulty with forgiveness, not only with respect to our trespasses against one another, but with what we perceive to be the unfairness of the universe.

On a previous occasion, I’ve reflected on this factor. I’ve noted that many of us genuinely harbor a grudge against God, and the main reason is that we resent the reality of pain and death in the material universe. Since this is a thought I’d like to expand further, I will reserve it for a later meditation, but surely the ability to forgive is the culmination of what John meant by “abiding in love.” We have to be able to recognize reality for what it is, accept the fact that fear and pain do exist, and then transcend our anger and resentment, as Cherry envisions Jesus doing during his encounter with Satan. And we must accept the ultimate realization she states so eloquently. Love is the eternal reality. Hatred, fear, sin and death are destroyed by time. It is Satan’s lie that we must give in to the power of these negative aspects of existence. It is God’s truth that we can transcend them by the power and grace of love.


Anonymous said...

That bird photo was the most amazing Ash Wednesday image I have ever seen. Sometimes the love of animals (dogs, birds, and cats) seems more real to me a lot of times than how humans treat each other. I'm glad animals got included in Ash Wednesday!

Julie said...

We will only become as our Master Jesus when we realize we are not to consume animals. How is it that we sit with knife and fork at mealtime to nourish our bodies with creatures who have been traumatized and tortured? How can we find room in our hearts for animals that we consider to be called pets yet lust after a taste for other animals? At this point in our "evolution" we have much to answer for.

Ann-Kathrin said...

It seems to be a common event, that this sequence of images is completely misrepresented.

In fact, what is happening, is that the female is drooping it's broken wing, which mistakes the male by thinking it's an offer to copulate. He then tries to copulate with the female, and due to her being unresponsive, he flies off.

The image where she is still alive and has her head turned towards the male is a sign of agression.

It is sad how many times animal behaviour is being wrongly interpreted, and human morals/feelings are projected onto the animal. I am sorry if this explication offended some people, but this is what is happening here, there is no such thing as love involved at all. A swallow cannot afford to mourn for a dead partner. Life is about survival and reproduction, and even if some animals, like primates or other mammals exhibit a strong tenderness towards a member of its species, or even another species, we should not compare it to what we see/interpret as "love".