Whoever loves his brother or sister is living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling; unlike the one who hates one’s brother or sister and is in the darkness, not knowing where she or he is going, because it is too dark to see.
1 John 2: 11
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, the child is destined to cause the fall and the rise of many within Israel, and to be a sign that is disputed — indeed, a sword will cut through your very life — so that the calculations of many hearts will be revealed.”
Luke 2: 34-5
In today’s gospel we read of the encounter in the Temple of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus with Simeon. Simeon immediately recognizes that this infant is the promised One. He recognizes that God is visiting him in the presence of this child and the child’s parents. In the course of Jesus’ life there will be others who will recognize that he is the light, and there will be many, in fact most, others who will not; who will remain in the dark although the light is right before them. The light that this child, and later adult, brings will, says Simeon, reveal the calculations of our hearts. In his commentary on Luke 1:35, the scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that, with two exceptions, “the term dialogismos and its verbal equivalent defines the mental process of those actively opposed to Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 56). Simeon simply and immediately recognizes the light because his heart does not “calculate,” but rather sees directly because it loves. As the first letter of John tells us, the one who loves lives in the light. For most of us, however, as for most people of Jesus’ time, our hearts are more complicated. We both love and hate; we both see the way in the light and stumble in our own darkness.
Many years ago, a friend told me of an experience with her teenage daughter. Every mother knows of the experience in the course of her daughter’s development when, in her daughter’s eyes, her mother cannot do anything right. No matter the effort to be present and caring, her daughter will resist her and even antagonize her at every turn. One day, during one such episode, her daughter, who had been formed to be reflective and honestly expressive, said to her with real pain and frustration, “Mom, I don’t know why I hate you so much at times.” Given that the “terrible twos” and periods of adolescence are particular manifestations of this conflict in us, it remains true throughout our lives that we both love and hate, in fact we often love and hate the same people. It is probably fair to say that until we awaken to and reflect on our hates as well as our loves, we cannot even begin to really love and to live in the light.
Freud thought that we have within us both a life instinct (eros) and a death instinct (thanatos). There is in us a passion and desire for life, for growth, for communion but there is also a drive to death, disunity, aggression, as well as isolation and passivity. To be human means that these two drives or instincts always co-exist. We shall always love and hate that which draws us out of ourselves, which awakens us, and which draws us to greater life.
So, when we first “fall in love” with another, we recognize in them another self. We see in them one who will complete and fulfill us, who will allow us to feel secure enough to withstand all that is other and threatening in life. In time, however, we come to see that the loved one is him or herself an “other.” They are different from what we thought and idealized. They are in many ways a stranger to us. Our first reaction to this may well be “hatred.” We hate their failure to live up to our illusion. We are angry at their inability to reinforce those attitudes and ways of being in us that make us feel secure and safe. We hate who they are that we cannot recognize, and we hate the feeling that hatred evokes in us. Our ideals, hopes, and expectations have been thwarted by the strangeness and otherness of the one we thought we loved, and we are angry and resentful that they have taken us “where we would rather not go” (John 21:16).
This dynamic that we experience in significant relationships operates both at the interpersonal and at the wider global level. In 1965, the musical group The Seekers had a very popular hit song entitled A World of Our Own. The words of the refrain were:
We’ll build a world of our own that no one else can share
All our sorrows we’ll leave far behind us there
And I know you will find there’ll be peace of mind
When we live in a world of our own
A manifestation of a disguised “death instinct” is our attempt to join with like-minded others in building a “world of our own” that keeps out those who are different and thus provides an illusory “peace of mind.” This may look like eros, like the desire for life, but if followed we discover quickly enough that it is more what Jean Paul Sartre describes in No Exit, that “hell is other people.” When we attempt to live out a closed relationship, or live in a closed society or community, everything that is different is a source of hatred for us. For the open-hearted Simeon, Jesus is not only a gift, but the ultimate gift of God. Simeon is open to whatever is given to him, even, and perhaps especially, that which leads to the giving over of his own life: “Now, Master, you release your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen the salvation you have prepared in the sight of all the peoples . . . ” (Luke 2:30-1). For many who will encounter Jesus over the next 33 years and whose hearts are closed and fearful, Jesus will evoke a passionate and ultimately fatal hatred because he does not meet their expectations and fulfill their need for security on their own terms.
There may be nothing more dangerous to our own human and spiritual formation than the denial of our own thanatos and hatreds. The first letter of John tells us that “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (I John 1: 5) . As for the rest of us, however, there is in us both light and darkness. It is this tension, conflict, and complement that is human life and love. To realize and question it, as did my friend’s young daughter, is to allow the possibility of formation, reformation and transformation of our lives and our hearts. If we allow the Word to reveal “the calculations of our hearts” we shall be drawn more and more fully, by the grace of God, into the light.
In this process [of reform], it is normal, and indeed healthy, to encounter difficulties, which in the case of the reform, might present themselves as different types of resistance. There can be cases of open resistance, often born of goodwill and sincere dialogue, and cases of hidden resistance, born of fearful or hardened hearts content with the empty rhetoric of “spiritual window-dressing” typical of those who say they are ready for change, yet want everything to remain as it was before. There are also cases of malicious resistance, which spring up in misguided minds and come to the fore when the devil inspires ill intentions (often cloaked in sheep’s clothing). This last kind of resistance hides behind words of self-justification and, often, accusation; it takes refuge in traditions, appearances, formalities, in the familiar, or else in a desire to make everything personal, failing to distinguish between the act, the actor, and the action.
Pope Francis, Presentation of the Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2016