All of us live in hope. We get up in the morning hoping today will be worth the trouble of living it. We breathe in hope the world will share its supply of oxygen. We speak in hope of an answer. We set out on large-scale ventures—graduate school, a fresh career, marriage, parenthood, a walking tour of England—in hope that our sacrifices and exertions will bear fruit. We live in expectation of future good, and we believe it’ll come.
If we lose hope, we lose everything. Why speak, if no one will answer? Why breathe, if we no longer trust the abundant generosity of the world? Why do or act, if there’s no help ready to meet our hopes? Hope is essential to living Christianly. Hope is essential to living humanly. We, all of us, must live in hope, if our existence is going to be called “living” at all.
Above all, we hope for love, for empathy, friendship, eros, agape. We long to be admired and adored; we yearn for devotion, affection, and commitment; we want to awaken another’s passion, to brighten another’s eyes and speed another’s heartbeat. And we want to return the love we receive—to admire and adore, to commit, to be awakened to passion, to accept the one who has accepted us. We hunger for mutual intimacy, to know and to be known, and through it all, to be accepted.
Love gives life new meaning, new joy, new energy. Love makes the world new; every leaf, every ray of light, every rustle of wind glows with love. Hope fulfilled is a tree of life, Solomon says. At its advent, love says, “Behold, a new creation!” As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “man is redeemed by love.” Nothing but love satisfies the deep hunger of our souls.
Yet love is elusive. Our hope for love is often hope against hope, hope in the face of repeated disillusionment, a hope we fear will never be fulfilled. The abandoned, neglected, hated child; the duckling who feels she’ll never be a swan; the lonely single who waits long years for the advent of love; the neglected wife who knows her husband is ashamed to be seen with her: All ask, with degrees of despondency, “Where is love?”
Even when we find it, love is fragile. Love cools. Love can be like the seed that goes into shallow ground and springs up quickly, only to fade in the noonday sun. The Bride of the Song of Songs knows the desperation of fugitive love. Twice in the Song, her Beloved, her dodi, disappears. “On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but did not find him” (Song 3:1–4). And then again, “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned away and had gone! . . . I searched for him but I did not find him; I called him but he did not answer.” She exhorts the daughters of Jerusalem, “If you find my beloved, tell him I am lovesick” (Song 5:2–8).
We can’t keep love, not forever. The love of lovers and loved ones—parents, children, friends, husbands, wives—is “destroyed by death,” swallowed by Sheol. If our souls are going to be fully satisfied, if we’re going to live fully human lives, we must find a love that doesn’t end at death.
Here is the hope of the gospel: There is a love stronger than death, a love more jealously possessive than the grave. That Love is the source of the universe, for God himself is deathless, faithful, eternal, triumphant Love. He is the Love that casts out fear, the Love that turns mourning into dancing.
And he’s not a remote, distant “first cause.” Love is here. Love took flesh and mingled with us. The Love that is God became human love, and so there is a human love, a human Lover, who is stronger than death. Jesus is the lost Lover of the Song; he’s the true Bridegroom who gives his body as bread, his blood as wine. He departed in death, apparently lost forever. But Love returned, glorified in the Spirit. Jesus is the flame of divine love, burning through the grave, faithful to death, then yet again faithful.
Jesus is the only fully human man, because he alone lived a life of perfect hope and love. But Jesus isn’t content to live one life of love. Love gave himself, and when he ascended, he gave himself again as the Spirit, the fiery love poured into our hearts. Through the Spirit, Jesus lives his love in billions of lives. This is the staggering conclusion of the Song of Songs: A poem about erotic love, about unions and separations, about pursuit and capture, about passion and desperation and the delights of sex becomes, in the end, a celebration of a Love more than human. The love of the Bridegroom and the Bride for one another is but a flash of divine love, the flame of Yah (Song 8:6–8).
Only the love of Jesus is stronger than the grave. As you commune together with the incarnate Love that is Jesus, your love for one another will ripen into joy inexpressible and full of glory. Living in you, Jesus the Lover will transform your life as husband and wife into a life of mutual self-gift. He will mold your marriage into the shape of Eucharist.
Your only hope for a long, loving marriage is the love of Jesus Christ; Christ, the incarnate Love who made himself one Spirit and one body with his church; Christ, the enfleshed Love who makes a place for himself in the one flesh of your life together; Christ, the Love stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, the flame nothing can quench.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Image by The U.S. National Archives licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.