[This is a copy of my column in the last edition of VOX.]
One of the best (and also challenging) things about Church is that it throws all sorts of people together who would otherwise probably never interact with each other. For example, it’s rare, I think, in our culture for deep friendships to be formed across generations. But, despite being ancient (in my 50s), it is a delight to have good friends who are a generation younger. Two such couples had their first baby last year. It’s been a joy to see their joy. And, since I have just finished a draft of a book on love, it got me thinking about the love of parents for their children.
Now I know that, sadly, this is not always the case, but there is nothing fiercer or more tender than parental love. The mother and father envelop their baby in love; they would do anything for the well-being of that little bundle of life. They bombard their baby with smiles (and various clucking and cooing noises along with weird facial expressions). Eventually this tiny new person smiles back.
That first smile is a transcendent moment and is what these musings are about.
In reading about love I came across these comments by a Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. He writes that
‘After a mother [I’d add father as well!] has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child’.
The baby is loved into loving.
And von Balthasar then draws parallels between parental love and God’s love.
God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has [shone] in our heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the sea of love lies dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace – in the image of his Son.
This is a beautiful and moving picture.
It is also profoundly biblical. John writes that ‘love is from God’ because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:7-8). ‘We love because he first loved us” (4:19). That love takes flesh-and-blood form in the self-giving love of Jesus: ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (4:9). And it is in our response of love that we come to a knowledge of who God is: ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’ (4:7).
Think about that for a moment: John tells us that we love in order to know. That’s a radical thought in a culture which thinks that knowledge equals information and facts and ‘know-how’ and has nothing to do with love.
Another theologian, James K. A. Smith, puts it this way,
The smile of the cherishing mother [again, what about dads?!] that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation – “he first loved us” – is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.
Jesus as the smile of God.
Now that’s an image to mull over the next time you hold a happy baby in your arms.
 All the following quotes are drawn from J. K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Brazos Press, 2016) pp. 111-12.