It was an unexpected tragedy. The elderly man was near death from cancer and in the hospital for the last phase of his palliative care. His wife, close in age and his caregiver for years, was being rushed to intensive care with a severe heart attack. The chaplain was to arrange what would likely be their last encounter.
While a medical team frantically worked on the wife, the husband was brought to see her. They said nothing and looked very sad, but there was a passion in their eyes, a love that was as tangible as any I have ever witnessed. It was their last meeting. There was nothing the medical team could do, and she died quickly.
Deeply moved, I later went to the husband to show my sympathy and respect. Very weak and deep in grief, he was sitting alone in his room. “We didn’t know anything about love when we were married,” he said. “I always had my mind somewhere else. I didn’t treat her so well. When I got sick a few years back, even with how I had been all those years, she was so good to me. We learned what true love is. Now, I can’t live without her.”
He died a few hours later. Over the years, those brief, silent moments that passed between the two of them have stayed with me. Before this encounter, I had thought of passion as something only the young could know-a feeling that one hoped would be strong enough to chug along for a few decades. That seemed to be the way the songs, the movies and even the preachers described it.
These elders would have characterized it differently. You can’t know true love, true passion, unless it is the product of years of dedication and commitment. More fervent and feverish than anything that could be found in the back seat of a car, this love is the foundation and goal of that Christian discipleship we call the family.
Though I credit this husband and wife with my first conscious glimpse of true passion, I had seen it before-in the sacrificial love of parent for child, in the dedicated love of a true servant of the people. And most of all, I had seen it in the love that Jesus had for me.
Scripture, contrary to many modern assumptions, claims that Christ’s love can be uniquely experienced and displayed in the love of husband and wife in marriage. Paul even claimed that marital love-often thought to reach its only pinnacle in the initial days of a romance-was meant to be a unique sacrament of God’s saving love in Christ. For us, then, it is the cross that is the true story of passion. It is this sacrificial love that is the ultimate path to freedom, peace, joy and-what a surprise-the fervent feelings that are the object of so much of our society’s favourite fantasies. Ω
Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.