Today’s hymn, as we move on from the Presentation and towards Lent, is titled “Love is the touch of intangible joy” by the Scottish composer Alison Robertson.
John Hartley has indicated that he preferred not to include this in a service of worship, and I will be interested to hear his reasons. I found a recording of it online where it is set to a tune by John Bell. The notes there say that “one of Mrs Robertson’s aims in this hymn was to write something that people who may not subscribe to the Christian faith could still assent to and be helped by”, which might tally with John’s hesitation – I will be interested to find out.
Leaving aside the refrain “God is where love is, for love is of God” and the Trinitarian reference in verse 4, which clearly are Christian statements, could a humanist agree with this hymn? The illustrations of love given here are mostly passive, things that make life’s problems more bearable for us, such as “the goodness we gladly applaud”, “the hope that can make us rejoice” or “the light in the tunnel of pain, the will to be whole once again”. The same notes referred to above interpret “love is the lilt in a lingering voice” in verse 2 as referring to “the voices of those who have gone before and still matter to us”. One would hope this just means the memory of our beloved dead and not that they communicate to us, which is not consistent with Christian theology.
What seems to be missing here is the outgoing, practical and sometimes risky kind of love that Jesus taught in his parables and demonstrated in his life: the Good Samaritan giving of his time and money to help an enemy in need, his countrywoman at the well giving Jesus a drink, Jesus himself spending time with the outcasts of society, challenging prejudice and healing diseases in the face of vocal opposition and ultimately giving his life that we might live. That is where Christianity comes in – the challenge that “greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend”. It is the challenge that we must consider during the approaching season of Lent.