The serpent in the cup

Today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the writer who is credited with the Fourth Gospel, three short letters, and the book of Revelations in the New Testament, the beloved disciple.  According to legend, John was the youngest of the twelve apostles and the only one who did not die a martyr; he lived, indeed, to be a very old man, who eventually preached only one sermon to his congregation: “Little children, love one another.”

St. John and the poisoned cup, by El Greco

Years ago, I read Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s lovely book, To Dance with God, in which she recounts that St. John once drank poisoned wine and was unharmed. In commemoration of this, wine and cider were blessed in the church, and people toasted one another with the words, “I drink to you the love of St. John.” It is said that he blessed the poisoned cup when it was offered him and the poison manifested itself in the form of a serpent, which is why you sometimes see images of St. John holding a cup with a serpent rising out of it.

St. John is the great poet of love in the New Testament. He is the writer who gives us the great images of Word made flesh, of Way and Truth and Life, of the cosmic dramas of Lamb and Serpent and War in Heaven. But he is pre-eminently the one who speaks of love, of God’s love motivating his actions for us, of divine love preceding and eliciting human love, of love for one another being the fullness of response to God’s love for all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may perish but may have eternal life.”

I don’t see a lot of emphasis in the churches right now on God’s love. I hear it from the pulpit of my own church, for which I am grateful; I see it in some of the excellent blogs I read. But in the wider church, especially here in the U.S., I get the impression that people are not as impressed with God’s love as they are with God’s holiness, God’s justice, and even God’s wrath. God is not like us, seems to be the message. God is bigger, holier, more powerful, all-knowing, and, well, meaner. God is easily offended.

It’s as if divine Love is not tough enough for some people. It’s namby-pamby. It’s wussy. Dare I say, it’s *gay*? The tough upright cis-hetero-normal-sexual white men of America deserve a God who’s as tough as they are, right? Right?

I don’t get it. Because love is the most terrifying thing in the world.

If you have not faced a point in your life where someone loved you, and you felt undeserving of that love, and terrified of it, and tempted to shove it away, to reject it as vehemently as possible, then I think maybe you haven’t lived.

Let me be frank. I’ve had a pretty easy life in many respects. I coped with most of my family being chronically ill during my teen years; I lost my grandmother and my mother by the time I was twenty. But I’ve never suffered a life-threatening injury, or a chronic illness, or an addiction, myself. My depression is easily medicated. Even separated from my husband, I spent time on Christmas day with him and his sweetie, his mother, our daughter and her husband, and it was peaceful and good.

And yet, I have known those moments when I felt profoundly, grossly unlovable, when being loved was a threat and an affront and the last thing in the world I wanted. Someone stood by me and loved me and withstood my loathing, and because I have been fortunate, those times passed over pretty quickly. But I know. The light of love shining into our darkness does not always lead us out into the light. Sometimes it causes us to flee deeper into the darkness and the abyss. And St. John, in his writings, shows us and teaches us that.

St. Catherine of Genoa is reported to have said that the fires of hell are only the love of God, as felt by those who reject it. The first time I read those words, they made perfect sense to me, and they still do. All of us, in this life or the next, will confront the absolute, unconditional, unyielding love of God for us, each individual fucked-up self. And for some of us, the experience will be more terrifying, more destructive to the self we created, than any amount of divine wrath or punishment, any transcendant holiness and otherness. Love is the cup we are offered; it is our own fear, our own shame, our own sin that can place a serpent in it.

I drink to you the love of St. John.

One thought on “The serpent in the cup

  1. Bo

    Another beautiful and splendid piece: I’m having a great evening reading through your blog after a good long while. My loss! Do you read my private blog? I can’t find you on the list. If you’d like to, drop me an email at mark.williams AT lincoln DOT ox DOT ac DOT uk and I’ll add you. I don’t really update Cantos anymore. Bo

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