Love divine, all loves excelling

When I am helping couples to put together their wedding services we always arrive at the tricky issue of choosing the hymns. My advice is always the same: ‘Make sure the tunes are well-known.’ Because of a very different engagement with the singing of hymns, most young couples draw from the same limited repertoire. So often I find myself singing: All things bright and beautiful, or Morning has broken, or Jerusalem. These hymns (often referred to as ‘songs’ or ‘tracks’) certainly have well-known tunes but what, I wonder, do they have to do with marriage?

The notion of couples drawing from a pool of just five or six hymns is not a new phenomenon. When, in my teens, I began playing the organ for weddings it was just the same. The choices were different but the catalogue of wedding hymns was just as limited: Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us, or Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven, or Love divine, all loves excelling. Presumably because of its first word, Love divine … was top of the popularity poll.

The word ‘love’ features prominently in the wedding service. We should not be surprised by this, of course, but I am always amazed at how misused that word is. Even those embarking upon the lifelong journey of Holy Matrimony, those who use the word so much, seem to have little understanding of its true meaning.

‘Love’ is a complicated word. The ancient Greeks had six words for ‘love’, each describing a particular aspect of a very complex state of mind. The version of ‘love’ referred to by Jesus, and that should be at the heart of every Christian’s use of the word, is agape. Agape describes a love that is totally self-sacrificial in nature, a love that always puts the one who is loved first.

In November, the ‘wedding season’ is largely over. The bleak, unpredictable weather and the looming winter do not lend themselves to thoughts of matrimonial festivities. However, in November, our minds turn to another example of agape in action. November is the month when we remember and honour those who sacrificed their time of possible intimate love with a lifelong partner in order that others might, in their time, enjoy that freedom and delight. We remember those who passed from this world, sometimes in horrific circumstances, into the loving embrace of their heavenly Father.

In St John’s Gospel (John 15:13) we read these words: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Two thousand years ago, Jesus did just that. In the Gospel narrative we hear Jesus telling us that we are not just his followers, but his friends. Then Jesus went on to make that ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity, dying the horrendous and tortuous death of crucifixion, for his friends.

Down the ages many have sacrificed themselves for the good of others. But, Jesus’ sacrifice was different. Jesus put himself in the brutal hands of violent people in order that all may find forgiveness and, ultimately, eternal peace in God’s nearer presence.

Those who have given their lives for the good of others, in a spirit of agape, since that unique moment in the history of humanity, have joined Christ himself in demonstrating that Love divine, all loves excelling.

On 11 November, and on Remembrance Sunday, there will be some who remember the intimate commitment to loving a partner for the rest of their lives. For those who have lost that partner in military action, the day will have an added poignancy. As well as those for whom that wound is both recent and raw, there will be those who remember family stories of similar tragedy. As we remember and give thanks for those who have fallen in military action, let us also spare a special thought for the love given and the love sacrificed by those who are commemorated on our war memorials and in our hearts.

Let us pray for those who have played their part in creating the freedom we enjoy in our lives today. Let us pray for those who are free to enter the loving oneness of marriage. Let us pray for those who have had that joy snatched from them. And, let us give thanks for Christ’s sacrifice that made it possible for us to journey through this world in hope … hope for a better future … a better future that we can play our part in creating, if only we will seek to love as Christ loved.