From one love to another love

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought we’d go for a bit of a wander through my thoughts on ‘lurve’. I’ll start with love as we think of it on Valentine’s Day, and end on the most amazing love I know of, which is for everyone, not just those with a Valentine.

If you believe Wikipedia, Saint Valentine’s Day has traditionally been associated with lovers celebrating their love for each other since the Middle Ages. These days it seems to have become another one of those annual events that card shops, chocolate manufacturers and florists big up in order to sell their goods, handily situated between Christmas and Mothers’ Day.

Since Tom and I started ‘going out’ in 2004, we have always gone out for a meal together on or around 14th February, because we enjoy our food and for us it’s the perfect way to spend an evening together. The one exception was last year when we had a 2 week old baby – we got takeaway instead! I say ‘on or around’ because I think most years it’s actually been another evening close to the 14th, mainly because it’s so expensive to book a restaurant on the night itself, and we don’t feel as though we need to show/tell each other how much we love each other on one particular night of the year – we try to do that every day. It’s a good excuse to go on a ‘date’ though 😉 This year Tom has a surprise location planned for dinner tomorrow, and I’m not allowed to guess where. Andrew’s Godmum has kindly offered to babysit.

The kind of love we think about on Valentines Day is just one of various kinds of love. It’s the attraction felt between two people who are ‘in love’ (though of course Valentines is not just about existing couples but also those who want to tell the one they are attracted to just that). Somewhere in my linguistics-related past I remember learning that Greek is a language which has various words for different kinds of love, not like English which has to qualify which love is meant if the context isn’t clear (it usually is). But since my already jam-packed memory for linguistic info didn’t need to access this interesting insight about Greek semantics (or word meanings – I’m a sounds girl), it must have filed it in the hard to reach areas – yes, I’ve forgotten exactly what the words are. As my days of sitting in the University Library are long gone (not a bad thing), my research into this ‘love’ly topic can’t come from there; instead I choose Google. The top result in my search is of course Wikipedia, though scrolling further down I come across various sites and blogs that agree with it. And here’s what I find, summarised…

Eros

This is passionate or intimate love, often with a feeling of desire and longing. Though it does not necessarily have to be sexual, it applies to someone you love more than a friend, including dating relationships and marriage. It’s where we get the word ‘erotic’ from in English.

Philia

This is affectionate love or friendship, such as that between family, friends and within a community. In ancient Greek it could also be used for enjoyment of an activity, like we say, for example, ‘I love swimming’. It’s where we get the suffix (or word ending) -phile from in English, as in Francophile (someone who likes/loves all things French).

Storge

This means a natural affection, used mainly for family relationships, like the love that parents have for their children. It can also be used to mean ‘putting up with’ situations.

Agape

This started off in Ancient Greek as a general affection or deeper sense of love than eros which suggests more of an attraction. It was also used for the love parents have for their children, and that between a married couple. In the Bible, the writers of the New Testament, the part written (in Greek) since Jesus was born, used agape to mean unconditional and sacrificial love – the love that God shows towards us.

When I read about these different Greek words for love just now, I did recognise the word agape from more recent times in my life than eros, philia and storge (which I vaguely remember reading/hearing about at some point). It’s because the term Agape supper is used at church, to describe a meal that we sometimes eat together as a community of Christians (usually just before Easter on Maundy Thursday evening), to remind ourselves of God’s sacrificial and unconditional love for us. He showed this love by sending His only son, Jesus, to live on Earth, then die by being crucified on a Roman cross, to make up for all the things we do wrong that separate us from God. In this way Jesus showed the ultimate sacrificial love for us, taking all our wrongdoing on himself instead, to allow us to come close to God. Even when we mess up, again and again (I try not to, but I’m not perfect and still fall short of living a perfect life), God is always there, unconditionally loving us, ready to welcome us back with open arms and be close to Him again.

Now that I’m a parent, I understand what this kind of love feels like more than I did before Andrew came along. I know that I would do anything for him, even sacrifice my own life in order to save him if we were in such a situation; I can’t imagine not accepting him as my son, even if he did something really awful (though I guess at 1 year old I’m not going to be able to imagine that kind of thing yet anyway!) But, unlike me, God is perfect, and I have no doubt that He will welcome me back whatever I do, and I will say sorry to Him for messing up in whatever way, small or big, because I know what Jesus did for me by dying on the cross. As Christians we think of God as our Father (in heaven), and the kind of love that parents feel for their children is (out of the various kinds of love we can think of) probably the most like what He shows with agape.

I’d like to draw this wander through my thoughts on different kinds of love with some of my favourite verses from the Bible, because they remind me of how loving and perfect God is. First a selection of lines from one of the letters that a writer named John wrote to a community of early Christians:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:16)

We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19)

There are two things here that I find so amazing: 1) the very definition of love is ‘God’, and His character is ‘love’; 2) this love is not something that our actions initiated, it wasn’t anything we ‘did’, rather it was started by God and given to us.

Following on from ‘God is love’, here is a passage from a letter that a writer called Paul wrote to a community of early Christians:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13)

Again, there are two things here that I find so amazing: 1) the importance of love – without it even seemingly important talents or faith mean or are worth nothing; 2) perfect love has so many attractive and positive characteristics that I would love (!) to have (more patience and kindness, less envy, pride and anger would definitely go down well with me) – since ‘God is love’, we could re-write that list of characteristics with ‘God is patient, God is kind… etc.)

If you’d like to find out more about this agape love that I’ve talked about here, either contact me through the blog/twitter/facebook to ask me more, or why not find an Alpha course near you, where you can ask all sorts of questions about the Christian faith, like ‘Who is Jesus?’, ‘If there is a God, why does He allow suffering?’, and ‘What do I need to do to feel God’s love?’ After all this thinking about agape, I’d better get back to writing the card and wrapping the present for my Valentine. Have a ‘love’ly day everyone 🙂

Remembering Christ in Christ-mas

As a child I remember the feeling that Christmas was *finally* here, after what seemed like weeks, even months, of waiting. Now as an adult, I can’t believe it’s come round so quickly, and I find myself thinking where did those weeks and months fly by to? I guess now there is so much to do in everyday life, so much to distract me from concentrating on one particular thing. Though this year more so than recent years, I’ve noticed a kind of return to a slightly more childlike anticipation of Christmas, no doubt due to having a child of my own now, and experiencing the fun of several parties in the build-up to the day itself. It’s through all this partying that I’ve been reminded, more obviously than before, of the joy that this time of year brings, and of the reason why.

Having seen and heard Christmas greetings in languages other than English, this got me thinking about the word Christmas from a linguistic perspective. It struck me that English is one of few western European languages in which we get a rather obvious reminder of the reason for celebrating Christmas in the word itself. The word in several Romance languages comes from the Latin natalis (meaning ‘natal’, ‘of birth’) or nativitas (meaning ‘birth’, or, if with capital ‘N’, ‘birth of Jesus Christ’) – e.g. Italian Natale, French Noel, Spanish Navidad, Portuguese Natal. The German word Weihnachten comes from the Middle High German ze wihen nahten (meaning ‘on holy nights’) (ah MHG, how this reminds me of undergrad days in Nottingham!). The Scandinavian languages use a word which comes from Old Norse jol (the name of a pagan religious festival which became equated with the Christian celebration of Christmas) – Danish jul, Swedish jul, Norwegian jul, Icelandic jol (it’s also where English Yule comes from). The Dutch word Kerst(-feest/-mis), like the first syllable of English Christmas, comes from the Latin word Christus, originating from Ancient Greek Khristos (meaning ‘the anointed one’), which derived from the Hebrew word Messiah (meaning ‘anointed’).

A knitted Nativity - not sure where Joseph is?! Andrew's first Nativity set

OK, I hope the less linguistically inclined of you (and even those who share my interest in etymology) are still with me. The point that comes out of all this word dropping is that Christ is the reason why we celebrate Christmas. In their words for the celebration, the Scandinavian languages don’t mention this at all, the Romance languages kind of implicitly hint at this (it’s about someone’s birth – Jesus’, if you know Latin), likewise German mentions that it’s something to do with holiness, but English and Dutch explicitly put Christ at the beginning of Christmas. Here the English language makes up somewhat for its inadequacies, inconsistencies and general strangeness.

So who is this ‘Christ’, the ‘anointed one’? The Bible tells us that God’s son, Jesus, was born as a baby boy into our world, so that he would later die, crucified on a Roman cross, to make up for all the wrong things that we as people do, which separate us from God. This baby boy was God’s gift to us, a far greater gift than any of those we’re going to unwrap from under the Christmas tree this year. This gift was also undeserved – Jesus Himself had done nothing wrong, but He took on all the wrong things done by people, and died for our sake. The story doesn’t end there though; Jesus not only died, but also rose again from the dead. This is something I can write more about at Easter. For now let’s stick to Christmas, and the amazing gift from God that we are celebrating. But what does all this mean on a personal level? The one thing God asks of me (and anyone else who believes in Him), is that I follow Jesus, by committing my life to Him and putting Him at the centre of everything I do. Jesus has already made up for all the times I mess up (and continue to mess up), so that I can have everlasting life with God, even after my time in this world. I think that’s absolutely amazing!! (If a little mind-blowing!)

In all the busyness – both fun and annoying – at Christmas time, it’s quite easy to forget Jesus, even though it’s His birthday. I recently heard a simple but clever little way to remember Christ at Christmas. (This isn’t my idea – credit should go to Matt Philips of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge!) A tradition that many people observe at Christmas is hanging candy canes on the tree (apparently, if you believe Wikipedia, the candy cane was originally thought up by a German choirmaster who wanted to give sweets to children at his church at Christmas, but felt he needed to justify this by making the sweets in the shape of a shepherd’s staff, to remind the kids of the shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth). When candy canes hang on the tree, indeed they look like a staff. But if you turn them the other way round, they turn into the letter ‘J’ – a cool little reminder of Jesus 🙂 We hung one on our tree at home, and when we arrived at my parents’ house, their whole tree was decorated with them. I definitely have a great way to remember Jesus this Christmas.

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you enjoy all the fun, and can maybe take some time to remember Christ in Christmas.

Candy cane on our tree...
...turned upside down it turns into the letter 'J'
Candy canes on my parents' tree

Christmas is coming

It’s that time of year again. For several weeks now, especially after Hallowe’en was over, the shops have gradually been increasing the amount of red, gold and sparkly-packaged products they have on sale. Special foods adorn the aisles of supermarkets, whilst toy shops are crammed with the latest ‘in’ things for kids; in fact it seems there is no kind of shop which escapes a noticeable change in stock at this time of year. Decorations hang both inside and out, with twinkly lights illuminating even the most dull of concretised city centres (I know this, I was brought up in Coventry!) Of course, it’s the run-up to Christmas, or, as it’s more traditionally known, Advent.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the word ‘Advent’ is still used these days, but mainly in conjunction with ‘calendar’. An Advent calendar is a tradition which I believe started in Germany quite a while ago, and is obviously going strong in the UK today (just walk into any supermarket and you can’t fail to notice the offers like ‘3 for 2’ on the chocolate ones). In our family, we had a couple of traditions as my brother (Matt) and I were growing up – one pair of grandparents always bought us a chocolate Advent calendar each, and as a family we had a ‘Peanuts’ one (of Charlie Brown and Snoopy ilk), in which the story of the first Christmas was told a little bit each day, as we opened each door to reveal a short rhyming verse. The next generation of Advent fun has now begun, as Mum passed the remarkably resilient Peanuts calendar down to me, and Andrew can start being part of the tradition. Oh and I can’t forget the famous (in our family) video clip of Matt and I arguing about whether there were 17 or 18 doors open on the particular day in Advent that we were being filmed. (Incidentally I was right, but Matt was generally good at arguing that black was white… “18, see!” – this won’t mean much to most readers I’m sure.)

Snoopy dressed as a shepherd is getting ready to help tell the Christmas story
In days of old by royal decree, news was sent to Galilee....a message was sent to every home, to pay the taxes owed to Rome....Joseph and Mary were told that they, must go to Bethlehem far away....

So here comes a linguistic bit (2 paragraphs into the post isn’t bad going for me)…. Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. Christmas is what’s coming, right? Of course, but I like to think of it as Jesus is coming, because for me, that’s who Christmas is about. It’s a time of year that I (along with other Christians of course) prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus who was born over 2000 years ago. His wasn’t a grand entrance to the world – his mum gave birth in an animal shelter because all the accommodation in the town they were visiting was full, and she wasn’t a ‘celebrity’, so no 1st century equivalent of the paparazzi were clambering to scoop an exclusive story. But as he grew up, those who lived around him saw that he was an amazing person, who did some amazing things. I’ll go further into that in future posts; for now I’d like to stick with the topic of Advent. Opening a door on a calendar each day from 1st to 24th December (a 25th door seems to be a modern addition, at least since the time of Charlie Brown) helps me to remember why I’m looking forward to Christmas. It’ll be great to spend time with family and have some time off work, yes, but the most important part is doing all this whilst celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Writing this has made me realise just how close Christmas is now. Living in Cambridge, we’re already experiencing Christmas events that have been going on for the past week at least, as the undergrads go home soon so they squeeze these in at the end of November. I’ve just put up our Christmas tree (‘up’ being a common theme this year – up on a table, out of the reach of little hands), which will be a nice surprise for my boys when they get home. So, roll on 25th December!

Up on the table out of the way of little hands!