We have entered the season of Lent. Generally, it is considered to be the period of forty days leading up to Easter. I found a reference to traditional Lenten practices that described them as acts of justice – prayer (justice towards God); fasting (justice towards self); and almsgiving (justice towards others). This is interesting because we hear a lot about people giving things up for Lent, but very little about why we do so. If I think about what justice means, I wonder if it is more about actively giving, rather than giving something up. Ensuring all have what they deserve, rather than accepting continued scarcity. Requiring change, rather than maintaining comfort.
The words of this hymn, originally written in 1664 by Samuel Crossman, tell the story of Christ’s experience of jeering crowds all the way to his crucifixion. For those of us who are of Christian backgrounds, this is very familiar. It is a story retold year after year.
My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love for me:
Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
But who am I, that for my sake,
My Lord should take frail flesh, and die?
He came from heaven’s throne salvation to bestow.
But they refused, and none the longed-for Christ would know.
This is my friend, my friend indeed,
Who at my need his life did spend.
Sometimes they crowd his way and his sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day hosannas to their king.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.
Why, what has my Lord done to cause this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run, and gave the blind their sight.
What injuries! Yet these are why
The Lord most high so cruelly dies.
With angry shouts they have my dear Lord done away.
A murderer they save, the Prince of life they slay!
Yet willingly he bears the shame
That through his name all might be free.
In life, no house, no home my Lord on earth might have.
In death, no friendly tomb, but what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was his home,
But mine the tomb wherein he lay.
Here might I stay and sing, of him my soul adores.
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.
What struck me about this hymn, was actually the very first line. My song is love unknown. I had to speak these words a few times, because they are quite something. My song is love unknown. In these five words, both the depth and appreciation of a loving sacrifice is expressed. The mystery of love. The value of the unknowable. The need to voice the beauty of this love without fully knowing what it is, but knowing that it is worth singing about.
There is much that is unknowable about life. There are so many ways to try to understand the unknowable – be they religious or philosophical or scientific or some combination of facts, ideas and perspectives. There are often very few answers. There are often many questions. We struggle to find solutions. We fail. We try again. We think we’ve arrived only to find cracks in our foundations, and implications of our own conclusions on others that we hadn’t considered. But, there is something about love that, in its mysterious nature, overrides much of this. It is very difficult to treat someone unjustly once you look into their face and make a conscious decision to love them. Whether we express this directly or from afar, it is an act of justice. And it is a powerful tool.
Choosing to love someone requires us to provide what they need. In whatever ways we are able. Sometimes these are small things, sometimes they are monumental. Sometimes they require sacrifice, sometimes they require strength and courage. Sometimes they are easy, sometimes they are incredibly difficult. The story of Christ’s life and death outlined in this hymn, is one that many hold as a meaningful example of both active and sacrificial love. An example of someone choosing to love in a way that offered much to those who were willing to accept it; in a way that required much more than most of us will ever have to give. I find it incredibly sad that we have taken this act of selflessness and used it to justify religious superiority and all manner of unjust acts throughout the history of the Christian Church. I’m not convinced that either love or justice are well served by assuming some sort of inherent ownership of truth. This kind of arrogance does not make me want to sing.
So, when I read these words or hear them expressed over this Lenten season, I want to think of those that are most different from me. Those I understand the least. There is tremendous value in cultivating unknown love. The love that is bigger than us – that we don’t understand, that makes no sense and that may even scare us. The love that says, all are worthy of your song – whether we know them or not. Even when these songs require our lives to change. Even when we find ourselves needing to learn new languages and tunes. Even when we must relinquish our privilege and honour another’s experiences.
For there is joy in these songs. There is harmony in the multitude of voices – dissonant, consonant, clashing, crashing, sweet and lovely combinations. Singing because love exists. Working together in generosity and openness.
My song of love unknown.