Every year during the first half of May, on a certain Sunday, my pastor cries for a good portion of his sermon. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in church.
Many couples seem to somewhat fear anniversaries, fear the pressure they bring, and fear their relationship falling into living up to anniversaries, as if each one proves to the world that they really do love one another. All this fear generally leads at least one person, probably both, into immense overwhelming pressure; not only do they have to live up to their dreams of what the day should be like, but they also must live up to the expectations of the rest of the world, to be this perfect witness of what true love looks like, especially perfect Christian love.
Christ said, “No one can serve two masters, for either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (4)
Being a witness for Christ has been mistaken as looking flawless to the world, as pleasing the gossip wheel, and avoiding anyone looking at you incorrectly. “Better not be kind to someone, lest they mistake my kindness for attraction and flirting.” “Better I not be there for my friends, lest others think I’m having an affair.” “Better I never leave the house, only have friends of the same gender (if any), and only sit at my spouse’s feet waiting for the world to notice my great love and commitment.” “Better our relationship look perfect, and the number of our anniversaries be great.” Witnessing has turned into tricking everyone’s assumptions (which generally are false anyway), into never thinking anything but how perfectly Christian you are and how your life revolves around your spouse like a perfectly aligned planet. Jesus is thrown in there someplace too, maybe.
Love, for all the commitment and attraction that’s coupled up with it, revolves entirely around divorce — divorce from the world, that is. To love anything, anyone, means giving up pleasing, while instead embracing giving.
I am not the first to say it, yet I am certainly not one to deny it either, that love is hard, really really hard. Mr. Zacharias wrote it better than I could, “Love is a commitment that will be tested in the most vulnerable areas of spirituality, a commitment that will force you to make some very difficult choices. It is a commitment that demands that you deal with your lust, your greed, your pride, your power, your desire to control, your temper, your patience, and every area of temptation that the Bible clearly talks about. It demands the quality of commitment that Jesus demonstrates in His relationship to us.” (2)
Love demands that we do not care about what the world thinks. Did Christ care? The world took Him for a glutton, drunkard, and one who sits with tax collectors and prostitutes (Can you imagine the gossip in which that lead to?). Anniversaries are not for pleasing anyone. Anniversaries are for celebration, not of time, not of perfection, not of joy even; they are a celebration of sacrifice. Every Sunday we celebrate a Man who sacrificed Himself for each one of us; we eat bread and drink wine, giving thanks for all that He gave up for us; we celebrate what was laid down for our sake. Every anniversary is a celebration of what we not only gave up for that other person, but also for God; every anniversary we say, “I love you so much that all of this other stuff (my fears, my money, my unfulfilled dreams, my anger and pain that this relationship has brought out of me at times, my image to the world, my sin) does not matter nearly as much as you do, as our love does.” Just like our Eucharistic anniversary, we are celebrating what is sacrificed for the sake of love.
We may want to please the world about us, but the world doesn’t matter in love, and we may want to please the dreams we have, but neither do those matter as much as love. Every anger swallowed and every hurt feeling let go does not matter as much as this love. As the Eldredge’s wrote in reflection on their own 25th, “You are not a well and your spouse is not a well. You are both leaky buckets in search of a well.” (6)
If we try to please one another in all we do, especially anniversaries, then we have idolized each other, we have idolized each other’s dreams, and we have idolized the day. We set up all this for failure and exhaustion, unreasonably dependent upon it being a fountain that will fulfill our dreams, wants, and souls. Yet it will not.
There is a Hebrew word, חסד, which transliterates out as hesed, or chesed. It refers to a large encompassing form of love, such as mercy and kindness, though particularly it refers to a faithful and loyal, as well as an everlasting love (especially in relation to God). It is the word used in Psalm 136, repeating over and over again to emphasis its eternity, its inability to run dry, “his hesed endures forever.” It is the thing which we desire in our idolatry, the well which we are not. Yet, it is also what we should embrace in our relationships, what should be at the center, what we should embody, what we celebrate in our anniversaries.
Our heart’s stamp out to be, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (7)
If we love one another centered about this hesed, then we no longer have to fulfill one another, and we no longer have to please the opinions of others. We are freed to loyally love our spouse, our friends, and even strangers, without worrying about the judgement and opinions of others. We must only love without reserve, and divorce our cares from all else, loyal to this everlasting Love.
Anniversaries, then, are not simply a celebration of mere sacrifice, but they are a celebration of sacrifice given up for an eternal and everlasting well of love. Anniversaries celebrate how He loved us, how His steadfast love endures forever, how His love has completed the places where our love falters, allowing us to love still evermore. “Christ opened the way to God and to our brothers,” writes Bonhoeffer, “Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by way of Jesus Christ.” (8)
Loving begins with Christ, or else it ends bankrupt, draining out our being. Yet loving also leads to unity, to completeness of the lover and beloved, to complete our love for the one we love’s sake.
Furthermore, Christ did not die for a cow or an angel or a tree; He died upon a tree, hung like a slaughtered cow, more perfect than an angel, for you. He chose you and no one else, He chose each of us and nothing else in the universe. Relationships are beautiful, but what’s truly beautiful about them is that they divorce from the rest of the world, not only from fear and control, but from polyamory. I love my friends over all other friends I could have; I choose to spend time loving these particular people, and I divorce myself from the opinions of others, from loving others in the same way, because I love loyally and sacrificially in God’s perfect hesed, which I am not. I love the one my soul loves over all others (who could be easier to love), because I have divorced such loyalty from the world and attached it to her, I have given that level and form of love loyally and exclusively by way of His love. Fully, I love both of these entirely by the unending fountain of God’s hesed. My love remains loyally attached to one, to particulars, because He who fills me with such love is loyally attached to me — and not the demons which harass me.
Anniversaries, besides being a celebration of sacrifice given up for such eternal love, outpouring into and from us to another, are a celebration of discrimination, a celebration of giving up all that we do for who we do. It may seem selfish and unruly to speak of love in such a way; yet, do we complain that God did not die for the angels? Do we complain that the married do not sleep with others? It is part of hesed to love one’s neighbor, to love the stranger, yet that does not mean we love our spouse less, or our friends less, by loving others. It is why best friends exist, and why no one acts the same in every company. Part of loving is choosing to love, choosing to love in different, even deeper ways, than we do the rest of the world. Love is discriminatory in how it loves, so to overcome a polyamory: loving all the same, to the same level and form. Idolatry is the absence of such discrimination, it is loving others over God (or to the same level); adultery is the idolatry of human love, it is loving another the same as should be reserved for only one. Marriage is the celebration of such choice. Anniversaries are special because they celebrate the sacrifice, the divorce from loving the rest of the world in the same way as particulars. They celebrate giving up what could be with others for the sake of faithfully and loyally loving one in a distinct and particular form.
Christ leads our every relationship, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (11)
My pastor has about four anniversaries during the month of May. He cries when he speaks of it, and his tears are beautiful. For, you see, it is beautiful to see him so overcome with the love he has because of them, all he knows has been given up for their sake; it is beautiful to see such great love pour out of him, such fountain of eternal sacrifice streaming out him from God.
“No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves,” wrote Lewis, “They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” (12)
Celebrate all anniversaries with joy and thanksgiving, celebrate friends, celebrate family, celebrate anyone you’ve grown in and through love with, for they have all undergone sacrifice and they have all suffered the divorce which love requires, the discriminating love and eternal hesed. Celebrate the unity we have with these special people, which Christ has given us, for by no other means could such ever exist. Go and drink wine and eat bread, and celebrate all that you’ve given up for each other, for that love by Christ is far more worth anything that could compete with its attention.
Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Stacks with Reaper, 1890
Matthew 6:24, ESV
Ravi Zacharias, I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah, 2005, p.36
Vincent Van Gogh, The Siesta, 1890
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Glass of Wine, 1908
John & Stasi Eldredge, Love & War, 2013, p.72
Lamentations 3:22–23, ESV
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p.23-24
Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889
Vincent Van Gogh, Twelve Sunflowers, 1889
John 15:19, ESV
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 1945, p.100
Edgar Degas, Two Dancers at Rest, 1898