By the Rev. Brandon Filbert of St. Timothy’s, Salem
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free…Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight, all the days of our life.(From the Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79)
It is one of life’s oddities that February – a brief, grey, and often rather miserable month – plays host to St. Valentine’s Day, the Feast of Love. Exactly why a third century Roman martyr should have become the patron of romantic love is a long and convoluted story, but it does remind us of one very useful thing: Christianity and hatred cannot walk together comfortably.
The Age of Hatred
When St. Augustine wrote his autobiographical Confessions around the year 400, he remarked that the competitive educational environment of that day forced people in debate not just to attack a point of view, but to cultivate a deep loathing for the opponent, to take up the tools of hatred as an essential part of argument. This, he pointed out, corrupted all who participated in it. Hatred has consequences.
When I read this again recently, I was reminded of that old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In our own day the language of hatred – once fairly rare and taboo – is now not only common, but courted and encouraged. One might say this is the Age of Hatred: hatred of opponents, hatred of difference, hatred of those we cannot agree with. If one doesn’t like something, one hates it. Hate sells. Hate gets an audience.
In his commentary on the Psalms, that same St. Augustine remarks that Christians are never free to hate people; only evil itself; for, as he put it, very often when we hate an enemy, we are hating a brother [or sister] instead. The point is simple: for the Christian, hatred is reserved for sin and not humans. Augustine knew from experience that hatred is a moral and spiritual corrosive; it sickens and poisons those who bear it, even if they have all the right in the world to do so.
This is not to say that we are to be slack about the wrong we see or in which we participate: far from it. Indeed, when we stop focusing on hating people we will find the work of fighting sin and injustice – both within and without ourselves – clarified and intensified. This is because we will be using the love of God in Christ and not hate as the lens through which we look. When we do this, we taste true freedom.
A courageous way of life
One of the traditional ways to start the day in prayer is to pray the Benedictus (a.k.a. The Song of Zechariah) from Luke 1. This canticle speaks of the coming of the Messiah as the giver of freedom. We look to the rising sun each morning as a reminder of God’s ability to liberate us from the “old life of sin and death” and set us on the path of life and love.
This is a courageous way of life, however. It will not trade one counterfeit currency (hatred) for another (indifference). It does not say: “all roads lead to Rome” and give up in despair or complacency. Such a life refuses to compromise with the World – or, when it does so, confesses and repents (out of love, rather than fear). True freedom requires such clarity.
It is this freedom to love, rather than the compulsion to hate, which motivates us. Merely “winning” isn’t the point: in Jesus Christ we have already won (something we celebrate every time we gather for the Eucharist). We are a people being transformed into Christ-likeness; lives lived from the knowledge of being loved rather than being merely right.
This is the challenge, as I see it, facing each of us in the current cultural “moment”: whether to embrace freedom through love, justice, and truth – or, slavery by hatred, malice, and lies. This includes the demonizing of others.
People of Christ’s Love
As we approach Lent, we each of us must do the patient work of examining our own lives. We need to see how much we are People of Christ’s Love, and how much we might have compromised the promise of freedom given to us. Sometimes, this means acknowledging personal sin and resolving to turn our live over anew to the Lord for transformation. At other times, it means being aware of our complicity in the evil done in our name – or by our indifference to it – and taking steps to combat it, starting with identifying where hate is masquerading as something noble in our lives.
As the practice of saying the Benedictus makes clear, we must invite the Lord our God to take the lead. Only God can re-fashion us and raise us from the corrosion of hatred and evil. We cannot do it ourselves. By being in communion with Him, we can say along with Zechariah: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free,” to live lives “holy and righteous in his sight, all the days of our life.”
This is the life worth living – and it is given freely to each of us. Let’s chew on that, rather than on hard candy hearts, this February.
Visit our 2020 Resources for Lent post for ideas on how to make more room for God’s love in your life this year.