Last Saturday, the New York Times introduced the world to a couple named Michael and Ruth French – and introduced the world, as well, to a remarkable story of enduring love, a love that reflects in many ways the message of this Sunday’s gospel.
Their story began about a decade ago. That was when Ruth noticed that Michael’s personality was beginning to change. He became withdrawn and silent. He no longer spoke to Ruth over dinner. A meticulous record-keeper, he threw away tax documents. Ruth didn’t know what to do, and even considered a divorce. But then, in 2007, they learned he was suffering from something called frontotemporal dementia, a debilitating brain disease that is a little-known cousin of Alzheimer’s, but one that is even more devastating. It strikes younger people, progresses faster, and begins not by attacking memory, but by attacking the personality.
Michael French had been an engineer, a lecturer, and a marathon runner. Today, at the age of 71, he can no longer speak, read, write or walk.
But five years ago, after finally realizing what was happening and that it was beyond his control, Ruth French told her husband: “
“Whatever happens, we will go through this together. I will be there.”
She has kept her word. Today, Michael lives in a nursing home. Ruth visits almost every day.
She shaves him. She talks to him. She looks out for him.
She loves him.
His neurologist told her, “He will always know you. He might not be able to express it in a way that will be familiar to you or that you’ll like, but he will always know you.”
And so she is there, day after day, week after week, a fleeting and familiar face in the confusion of Michael’s life – a figure of constant, unshakable love.
Love. We tend to sentimentalize it, and dress it up in lace and scrawl it inside Hallmark cards. But this Sunday, the gospel compels us to look deeper. Love is Christ’s great message to his followers – his parting word.
And it is profound.
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you,” Jesus said.
Think of that: how deep and how eternal that love must be.
But Jesus then followed that statement with a challenge at once bold and unimaginable.
“Love one another,” he commanded, “as I have loved you.”
In other words: As deeply as God loves His son, and as powerfully as Jesus then loves us, that is how we are to love one another.
Could any commandment be more difficult? Could any order be harder to follow? Christ is asking us to do nothing less than to love the world the way that God does.
It is a love that never fails. A love that is willing to climb Calvary. A love that says to each of us: “Whatever happens, I will be there.”
“Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”
Despite your differences, love one another. Despite the hurt someone has caused you, love one another. Despite the angers you are nursing or the grudge you can’t let go of…love one another.
This statement could be seen as the great summing up of Christ’s work. It appears in John’s gospel just before Jesus begins his journey to the cross. And it’s the last gospel we will hear before we celebrate the Ascension. By placing it here, at this moment, the Church is underscoring how vitally important this great message remains – and it serves to remind us of the great work still waiting to be done.
The great work of Christian love – of literally loving like Christ.
It is giving, when we know we’ll get nothing back.
It is sacrificing, when we know there’s nothing to be gained.
It is an offering on an altar – or on a cross.
At the end of the New York Times story about Michael and Ruth French, the reporter describes Ruth asking her silent, bedridden husband a pointed and poignant question.
“Where do you carry my heart?” she asks him. He smiles and pats his chest.
For all that has happened to him, he still remembers something wonderful: a poem by e.e. cummings that Michael and Ruth have always loved. It goes like this:
“I carry your heart with me…I carry it in my heart…I am never without it. Anywhere I go, you go, my dear, and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling. I fear no fate, for you are my fate, my sweet, I want no world, for beautiful you are my world, my true…”
I carry your heart with me…
That is very much the way God loves us. Deeply. Devotedly. Mercifully. Without end. Carrying us in His heart.
The great challenge of this Sunday’s gospel is to look at the world around us, the people around us — all those we like and those we don’t, those we care for and those we don’t, those we respect and those we don’t — and love them like that, too.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
This is our calling – and Christ’s great commandment.
Are we courageous enough – generous enough, selfless enough, sacrificial enough — to not only keep that commandment, but live it?