I have to say, one of my favorite things about Oxford so far is what I would call the “café culture” that flourishes here. A friend recently described it to me as the perfect environment for fostering a love of learning: one gathers her books together, searches out her favorite coffee-shop nook, orders a cup of tea, and then sits down to do her work for hours on end, surrounded by the friendly support of others doing exactly the same thing. Of course, studying alongside a friend makes this experience even better.
This weekend, I enjoyed the lovely privilege of meeting with a fellow American, a visiting student, in one of my favorite local shops—Barefoot Coffee and Cake, where it is 100% acceptable to eat cake for breakfast—to study together the first couple chapters of John’s Gospel. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together, and I noticed in a new way a passage from John 3 that I think is particularly appropriate to this holiday season:
26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
My connection with Valentine’s Day may not at first be obvious. However, I found John’s description of the best man at a wedding extremely powerful at this time of year when we typically celebrate romantic love and sometimes forget about the other precious forms of love given us by our Heavenly Father. Too often, I fear, Valentine’s Day becomes cheap and even divisive because of our culture’s idolization of romantic love. Those not “in a relationship” feel left out; those “in a relationship” are shackled by the false expectations created by rom coms and advertisements. What a sad way to “celebrate” the life of a saint who is said to have given his life in order to enable the marriage of Christian couples persecuted under the emperor Claudius.
Like Saint Valentine—and for that matter, like John himself—the best man has nothing personally to gain from the marriage of his friend. Imagine the position in which John has found himself. His whole life and at least his public identity have been defined by and centered upon his extremely powerful and well-known ministry. Yet for some reason, once Jesus comes along, John renounces his fame without the bat of an eye: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” What’s more, there is no hint of sadness or envy in John’s words; rather, he finds his joy “completed” in the rising ministry of Jesus—just as a best man can rejoice wholeheartedly in the delight of a friend on his wedding day.
In this way, I think, John offers us an example of celebratory love that is in so many ways superior to our typical modern practices on Valentine’s Day. The love John refers us to is that which finds its joy “complete” in the joy of another. There is no hint of envy or jealousy here. Rather, there is perfect gratitude for the many different kinds of gifts each individual receives heaven. Ultimately, every experience, every relationship that we enjoy is enabled by our Heavenly Father. Perhaps one of the most beautiful of the gifts He has offered us is the opportunity to share fully in the joy of a friend, to give thanks for his joy and for our own—whatever that joy may entail—without any need to compare and contrast between the different gifts we each have received.
~ LaRae ~