I should know, by now, that context is of the utmost importance in understanding written and spoken words. We studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet at school, and I thrilled with appreciation when we read Ophelia’s commentary on the herbs and flowers, she was gathering by the river. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember” etc. Never mind the poetic expression though, the context is distressing. Hamlet has forgotten his love for Ophelia and in despair, she drowns herself. Just now, that line, which I always associate with the word “remembrance”, has a darker tone, overlaid by our Covid-19 context – I don’t want to linger over it.
Remembrance has a new and painful, significance this year. Our context of Covid-19 has prevented us honouring servicemen and civilians, caught up in the wars of our times. Many will feel the poignancy of the brief, carefully curtailed, public commemorations and regret that we cannot we seek solace in collective acts of remembrance in churches, once again closed for public worship., All Souls services, too, were muted, focusing only on private remembrance. And we are trying to avoid remembering. Memories of past suffering can overwhelm us, confronted as we are, by so much present suffering. Looking back on happier times of plans made and completed, is disturbing, when we cannot see the friends or family with whom we shared them. How do we turn away from our darkened context and towards the light? What help and encouragement is there, in today’s readings, to look forward with hope and faith?
It was the word “love” in that random quote from Hamlet, which finally pulled me back to today’s Gospel, although in the play, “love” was just a term of endearment “my love”. “Love” was also key to understanding the Epistle, which I had first od all dismissed as too “teachery”, even for me! I had to cheat a bit and take in Colossians verse 10, before I understood it – the verse with the “love” in it! In today’s Gospel however, “Love” is used 9 times in 9 verses with other positive encouragement – “joy” “complete joy” “friends” “I chose you” “bear fruit” “whatever you ask him”. What is the context of this reassuring, loving passage? Grimmer than you might suspect. Jesus is shortly to be betrayed by one friend and abandoned by the rest. He is in the Upper Room and has eaten the Passover meal with all his disciples but now Judas has left on a pretext, and gone to summon the soldiers and Temple Police. Jesus uses the time to prepare and encourage his friends in the ordeal that lies ahead.
Jesus has done some straight talking at the beginning of Chapter 15. Disciples (that includes us) need to stay close to him like the branches on a vine. They have to accept that they will be stripped of many of their false attachments and selfish behaviours and undergo suffering, just as a vine undergoes pruning. Jesus has never made false promises but has always spoken openly of self-sacrifice. But now, he promises us complete wholeness and fulfilment in the love of God shared amongst us. This completeness or oneness is shown, in the love between God and Jesus and in the love of Jesus for his friends. Jesus will lay down his life willingly for his friends, in an amazing demonstration of God’s self-giving love for the world. Jesus calls his disciples into the same kind of fellowship which he has with God – it is a relationship of mutuality, where we are friends not servants. Love and friendship bring joy and allow us to be the person we were intended to be. The kind of person who moves beyond their own ego to share themselves with others and who in the words of the Epistle, is an example “in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity!”