The word “love” is thrown around a lot lately--it’s no wonder it’s getting a little banged up.
If we pick up the word “love” off the debate floor, though, and polish it up a little bit, we find that it is as beautiful as can be, a lot older, a lot richer, and a lot more intentional than we usually give it credit for.
Consider the history of love: there is a great epic poem written about it, and it is based in the Near to Middle East. It starts with a lonely man foraging on a planet by himself. The creator of the planet comes down and tells the lonely man that he can have everything on the whole planet: all the weird animals nobody has ever seen before, all the spiny green and viney plants, even all the things swimming and squirming around in the planet’s vast oceans.
The creator of this planet hasn’t even deigned to give anything names. The lonely man gets to call them whatever he wants. And the place is beautiful (envision waterfalls, coconut trees, and lush flowering landscapes). In fact, the man is placed right in the middle of a veritable paradise.
But something isn’t right. The man is lonely. So the creator who loves him perfectly makes another person for him; so he can experience love and give love. Now this no-longer-lonely man and his fiance (for lack of a better term) stand before their creator, listen to the rules about the creator’s planet, agree to follow them, and are told to “be fruitful and multiply.”
This is the way it starts out: the first chapter, the first marriage.
This poem is printed in every language, and it goes on to tell tale after tale about love in one way or another; love of that original creator, love between the original man’s sons and daughters (and the ensuing drama and murder between them), and eventually love between a God and the entire people he created, ending in a tragic but beautiful death.
This epic poem, if you haven’t figured it out, is the Bible, and it talks about love for thousands of pages.
In fact, a narrative thread can be woven through the entirety of the Bible with the reader as the hero. But not only is there a hero in the Bible; it is largely written in verse (poetry form). Therefore, we can say the Bible is an epic love poem, an extraordinary form of poetic, narrative prose!
As members of the Roman Catholic Church, we claim ownership of this great narrative poetry. Our values are reflected in it because we wrote it, excepting the Old Testament books which we inherited from our Jewish ancestors.
So if we want to know what love is--as Catholics--and how we ought to define it, all we have to do is look closely at how it is represented in our literature. Just as we might look at how the ancient Norse writings represented Beowulf as a warrior who was rich beyond belief. So like Vikings valued war and gold, Catholics value true love.
In the case of Adam and Eve (that once lonely man and his wife), they lived physically and spiritually together. When she sinned, he sinned, and their salvations were bound together. They had children, and eventually they died together. They are prototypical parents but also intimately connected with God, since he is present as they become man and wife.
Also, since we know how the story of salvation history ends: with the new Eve and the salvation of Jesus Christ, despite committing the first sin, Adam and Eve are invited into redemption (much later in the poem) through the sacrificial act of crucifixion.
A logical read of this literature yields that marriage is inherently good. That it is part of God’s plan. But we also learn that everyone will face problems in their marriage, and the path to their salvation will be forged out of it, as well as the salvation of their children.
In the book of Genesis, the very basis of love itself is set forth. It defines the creation of mankind not merely as a set of individuals but as a complementary set made up necessarily of men and women. This is part and parcel of creation.
Moving beyond the popular, political argument of biblical marriage including a man and a woman, this chapter in Genesis says that marriage is not merely about being an individual. Rather, the next intended stage of life itself is marriage.
Consider that unique value. Marriage isn’t part of life. Life ordinarily culminates in marriage. And if it doesn’t, that life is uniquely and extraordinarily recognized by the lack of the normal marriage state. This is the case of religious sisters and priests--their celibate state tends to be recognized because of its sacrificial lacking in one way or another.
In our Bible narrative, marriage is a divinely created concept. Eve was made for Adam. Adam was there before her, waiting for her, profoundly alone without her. He was made for Eve because he was deliberately created to receive and give love. He waits for his love and helpmate, which leads us into the second great biblical imagery and literature of love: the Song of Songs.
The location of the first wedding is the Garden of Eden. The later, classic Hebrew example of romantic love is the Song of Songs. It is interesting that the bridegroom also talks of a garden, of pomegranates, of “choice fruits.” In fact, this garden imagery is explicitly stated when Solomon writes “you are a garden locked up.”
Again, the idea of marriage as a fruitful garden repeats. This is our value system, being described in poetry. What’s more, virtually every sense--even less common literary examples of senses such as taste, “your lips drop sweetness of the honeycomb,” and tactile sensations, “my head is drenched with dew,” seem to point towards the physicality of marriage.
The Song of Songs celebrates physical love in dramatic and almost scandalous sensory imagery. And this is in the Bible, canonically defining marital love as a physical act between a man and a woman. It is a fruitful act, and one that is celebrated and to be engaged in with every sense you have.
Thus, if in Genesis we accept marriage as a destined purpose of life, and from the Song of Songs we learn the physicality between a bride and groom is a part of it, then we have to consider what else is part of love.
To put it simply, God is.
In Song of Songs 4:8, Lebanon is mentioned several times. What’s more, the bridegroom says to his beloved, “come to me from Lebanon,” which is the modern-day locale of Cana, the first miracle and also a wedding. This leads us, obviously and finally, to Jesus Christ.
In Christopher West’s book, The Word Made Flesh, he reminds us that St. Augustine poignantly describes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a marriage between him, the bridegroom, and the church, his bride. St. Augustine goes so far as to refer to “the marriage bed of the cross.”
This crucifixion is a corporal interaction with God and his people. It is a sacrifice, a death, and a rebirth--it is everything that marriage is as we know it.
Even more mysterious is that unlike every other sacrament, marriage is a sacrament that the bride and groom confer on each other, not the priest, though he is the witness. Similarly, Jesus and the world together performed the sacramental crucifixion--witnessed and allowed by God the Father.
It is a beautiful love story with an extremely interesting meta-fictional twist. Because of this death and resurrection, we (the viewers, the readers, the audience) get to relive this day to day. It is our example for marriage, if we do it right.
So how is this cutting edge “meta” literature possible 2000 years ago? Because it is truth. The Catholic Mass is yet another example of literature in action. The Mass can be reviewed and studied as a great drama, whereas we are players in a chorus. Catholics have stood and sat and knelt and recreated this drama every hour of every day for thousands of years.
Literature is art that comments on the human condition.
When used correctly, it is a breeding ground of truth. So true things have their place there, whether or not we understand them yet. Consider, for example, that Macbeth can accurately be diagnosed with schizophrenia long before it was a recognized disease.
Even as a less avant garde read, taken at face value, the Bible is a love story, and it contains a blueprint for what love is. But it is even more than a blueprint for Catholics. It is a blueprint for love to the Catholic Church, by whose authority we receive the Bible, to all Christians who seek to follow it, and to all those of any tradition (or lack thereof) who seek to know the overarching and unifying truth of love throughout the history of humankind.
About the Author: Jesse Ross is a father of four and a proud member of the Knights of Columbus. He holds an MFA in poetry; his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can be found in several anthologies, Spoken Bride, and McSweeney’s. He is a precious metalsmith and co-founder of the Catholic art company 31Four, artisan jewelry.