Monday, October 26, 2009

""For you have fallen from your first love": Letters to the Seven Churches, part I

The next section of Revelation (though it's not technically in this week's lectionary) is one I've always found interesting: the Letters to the Seven Churches. I'm going to go through the Letters in order, at least the ones I find more interesting. This is, remember, the voice of Christ speaking to St. John. As you read the seven Letters one after the other, you see how poetic they are: each follows a formal pattern: with an epithet of Jesus, with his praise for the church, with a warning, and then a promise.

"Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."

Ephesus was St. John's city, the city where he had gone after the fellowship of the Apostles went their separate ways, the city where he went to care for the Blessed Virgin, and from which he and the other apostles saw her body assumed into heaven. St. John was hearing the voice of Christ speaking to his church, and to his own people. Again, think about the power of that image: the holder of seven stars, surrounded by seven candles.

Christ condemns the people of the church of Ephesus for falling away from their "first love", i.e. from the charity and care for one another that they had had when they first came together as a community and decided to follow the way of Christ. It sounds as if they had gone through a conversion experience similar to those many of us go through. In the flush of their first conversion, loving and serving others, being immune to the temptations of the World, giving away one's possessions and spending one's time caring for the poor and the sick, must have seemed so exciting, so fulfilling, so deliciously counter-cultural: countercultural in the first century Roman Empire as it was countercultural now.

Most of us have experienced the 'honeymoon period' of something we do. Sometimes it can be a marriage or a relationship, sometimes it can be a religious conversion, sometimes it can be a job or a vocation. When I first arrived in Madagascar, and began my training as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I thought of that little village in the mountains as one of the most beautiful places imaginable. I loved the sight of the mountains across a valley full of rice paddies in the morning, I loved waking to the sound of chickens calling, I loved how each day I learned more of the language and culture then the last, such that I could start talking with people over dinner about how to hunt wild boars. It was the same when I moved to my village and started working there. I had something of the same feeling starting high school, starting college, starting a new job. In Madagascar, when I first got there, I felt that I had been called there, that fate had placed me there as surely as it had placed St. John on Ephesus, and I resolved to spend every day trying to be of use, and of service.

I fell away from that, of course, just as the Ephesians fell away from the spirit of mutual love, service, and self-emptying that had characterized them at first. Just as the way Christendom- in Europe and in the Middle East, in Scandinavia and in Ethiopia- fell away from its newness and vitality over the long years of the Middle Ages. We all do. It's the nature of living in a fallen world, of being vulnerable to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Whenever we stay in our house and read a novel rather than help our neighbor dig an irrigation ditch, whenever we conserve our water on a long bike ride rather than lend it to a passersby to have a drink, whenevre we spend money on luxuries that we should be giving away, whenever we spend an extra day in the big city, in the company of other Americans, rather than going back to our village, into the hot sun, and living off rice and a bit of smoked tilapia while you schedule one meeting after another to talk to people about growing moringa, knowing that only half a dozen people will show up, even after you buy coffee and peanuts to make it more enticing. I tried to be a good Peace Corps Volunteer, and I think I was one, with plenty of good things to my credit, but I wasn't a perfect one. None of us are. All of us start out what we do- when we start a new job, a new relationship, a new calling- with such high hopes, and sooner or later most of us- save for a brave, saintly few- end up falling away from "the love we had at first".

Every day we do this, we lose opportunities to help one another, and to love one another. These opportunities can't be brought back, as C.S. Lewis was fond of saying, no one is ever told "what would have happened". The past, outside Borges' short stories, is unchangeable, and not even God can change it. When Christ will appear in glory at the end of the world, he will appear "in a robe sprinkled with blood" (Revelation 19:13), bearing the scars of the cross, for His wounds are forever, just as all the choices we make, for good or ill, are forever. But they can be transcended, and when we fall away from our first loves and then realize that we could be doing so much better, we often return with even more fervor than before. Sometimes the regret over opportunities to help and to serve that we have missed, spurs us to work even harder to love and serve our neighbors in future. And when this happens, this is Christ and His grace working through us, just as He worked through the people at Ephesus.

Christ uses the word 'caritas', or "charity", where the English bible says "love". He is talking about brotherly love, the kind of love that seeks the good of the other precisely because they are other, that seeks to give without hope of return, the kind of love that as St. Augustine says, multiplies when it is divided. But I suspect he meant other kinds of love as well. No doubt he meant to use the imagery of romantic love as a kind of subtext to what he said, for it lends itself so easily to the image of a romantic relationship. I was hearing a radio program last night where it was talking about people who reunite with their first high school sweethearts, ten or twenty years later, often over Facebook or other internet sites. One story was about a girl who met a boy at summer camp at the age of fifteen, dated for a few weeks that summer, and then years later found him over FB. They're married today, and apparently such marriages have a lower divorce rate than the American average. There is something special about first loves, because they capture us at our most innocent and inexperienced, and because they have in them the childlike wonder at something new, before life and experience are able to harden us and corrode us.

I'm not a believer that premarital sex is always wrong, and I think some premarital relationships- in the modern age of birth control- can be healthy, loving, and spiritually fulfilling things that image the kind of love that Christ has for us. A relationship need not be the kind of permanent, lifelong relationship that marriage is, in order to be good or acceptable: I don't think that sexual relationships which are truly characterized by love and commitment, even if they don't last, are wrong or inferior. But for anyone who does want to embrace chastity before marriage- not as a requirement but as a kind of special discipline and special sacrifice, like vegetarianism- here's the key to why such a sacrifice can be admirable and beautiful. Because there's something special about the first person with whom one has a sexual experience. We bring to that experience innocence, curiosity, and faith: a faith that this will be the person that we can be with, now and forever. And how great would it be if that faith could be rewarded, and could turn out to be true? A first love is special, in a way that no other subsequent relationship can ever be, and for those people who want to bind themselves forever to the first person they ever sleep with, and to never fall away from their first love, I think that's a beautiful and compelling sacrifice. It may not be for everyone, but it is absolutely what some people are called to, and those who choose that path need to be respected.

Let's remember, last of all, the beautiful promise with which Christ ends this address. To those who conquer- to those who overcome the temptations of the world, to those who overcome despair, inadequacy, ennui, to those who are able to keep their zeal for loving God and loving one's neighbor, for serving the hungry, the sick and the poor- Christ promises us to eat of the tree of life. In the book of Genesis, God expels the first man and woman from paradise "lest they eat of the tree of life, and live for ever". But this time, Christ offers us the tree of life: as a gift, not as the spoils of illicit theft. Original sin consisted in preferring our own will to that of God, in choosing good things to pursue at the wrong time and in the wrong way. But in Christ all wishes will have their fulfilment: we will enter heaven by "the gates of the city" (Revelation 22:14) not like a thief, and we shall finally get to eat of the tree for which our species, for all of its long history, has been craving.

"Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end."

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