Years ago, my wife and I used to see an elderly couple every week eating at a restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida. The wife, who was in a wheelchair, had had a stroke, was unable to speak and had to be fed by her husband. Week after week we would watch the same scene of him wheeling her to their table, ordering her food, feeding her, talking to her, wiping her mouth, and then wheeling her back to the car. Such a humbling sight.
One Sunday I decided to walk up to him and honor him for his marital witness of selfless love in a self-crazed world, and he said this in reply: “We’ve been married 61 years and, I must say, we’ve been much closer since she stopped talking.”
I nearly fainted.
Later, I thought his words served well in deflecting my compliment with their wry humor. He was clearly a no-nonsense fellow, who spent most of the time telling his wife about sports news and weather reports, even as he put the straw into her mouth. But, to me, his words also testified to the power of sacrificial love to transform time-worn and hardship-forged marital closeness into an epiphany of the deathless love that unbreakably binds Christ to his beloved Church. That love is not some ethereal ideal, but a flesh and blood reality made freshly concrete each time a person chooses to love unto death.
As I watched him each week wipe the drool from her mouth, feed her fragile body with his own hands, while she kept her expressive eyes fixed on his face, it seemed that “two-becoming-one-flesh” had acquired in them a far more profound meaning than sexual union. This was for me a deeper theology of the body, an embodied love that takes us on a journey from better to worse, from richer to poorer, from health to sickness wherein the spiced zest of Cana’s new wine is transformed by the Spirit into the bitter dregs of Golgotha’s out-poured blood of the covenant. Faithful, fruitful, free, total and sacrificial love.
Watching them each week was like watching a silent holy communion that made me almost feel intrusive, like their love should be hid behind a veil.
Lent is our time for practicing more less-self love in every circumstance. Or, better, our time for receiving with greater ardor the grace to love thus by eating the broken Body and drinking the out-poured Blood of the covenant, that we might become what we receive.
Help me receive, O Lord, a love that
…gives, not counting the cost,
that fights, not heeding the wounds,
that toils, not seeking for rest,
that labors, not asking for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do His will.