By James Woodward
Browsing in the British Museum, I came across a ring in the Roman antiquities section, a gold signet ring set with a grey-blue stone, pretty ordinary but for the Latin inscription which stuck in my mind and which translated as: “I love you too little”. The inscription struck me as odd, being slightly negative, not the usual unambiguous declaration of love and affection, but containing some level of self-reproach. An odd gift and an even odder inscription if the wearer commissioned it for himself.
This seems wholly opposed to much of today’s culture. When you read accounts of interviews with celebrities, a question often asked of them is whether they have any failings or regrets, and the typical answer is that he or she was too hard on him or herself, or didn’t love themselves enough. In our age of psychoanalysis there is an acceptance that the key to success and happiness is a level of self – understanding, acceptance and love of oneself.
I have never yet seen that question answered with an acknowledgement of a failure or insufficiency of love for another person, be that a partner, friend, parent or child, or even for God. When we make excuses for our behaviour (if indeed we do) I have never heard someone say quite simply I failed because I loved too little.
Maundy Thursday Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday commemorate the events which established Christianity, which has transformed our world for good and beyond all measure. It is a story about power, vulnerability, truth and the sheer inconsistencies of human nature. One aspect of this story is that Jesus went to his death being followed by people who didn’t quite grasp the heart of what he was trying to show.
There is a point in the story where Peter cannot let Jesus wash his feet. We do not know why — perhaps it made him feel too vulnerable. Perhaps we know that in all our striving for love and its wonderful gift, love makes us vulnerable to those whom we love. In loving we lay ourselves open to censure, to rejection. It hurts to love people because in doing so we expose our unprotected soft middles to them. And yet until we have made that first unguarded move, there is no chance of a relationship with any integrity. It is difficult to make that transition from being careful and guarded to tentative but risky vulnerability.
I hope perhaps that you will look at the story of Jesus during these last days of his life thinking about what he lived for and what he died for. At the heart of it he suffers, as we do at various points in our lives. In loving and following Jesus, as he suffers and dies, may we share that vulnerability and suffering with his others. We know that this is not the last word for Easter Day points to the hope and joy of new life through the resurrection of Christ.
All this starts with a willingness to enter into the kind of relationship with God and our neighbours which exposes us to them; sharing a love which is not pinched or careful or guarded, but open, free and even reckless.
We need to start by being able to say, like the wearer of that Roman ring, ‘I love you too little; help me to love you more.’
The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward is Principal of Sarum College.
A version of this piece is due to appear in the Salisbury Journal on April 14, 2022.