This coming May, I am really looking forward to going to England. May is a lovely time in England, but what I’m most looking forward to is marrying my niece Katherine. That is, I will be officiating at her marriage! It will be particularly moving because I also married Katherine’s mother, my sister Elizabeth, just after I was ordained.
As a priest, it is a great joy to conduct weddings, and there is the unique opportunity beforehand to spend time getting to know the couple, and helping them understand the nature and meaning of the commitment they are about to make. I remember that one of the first choices the couples had to make was whether they wanted the modern or traditional wedding service. When it came to making the vows, the modern version had each couple say to each other, “and this is my solemn vow.” The traditional words though, had this very strange sentence, “and thereto I give thee my troth.” So what’s a troth? I don’t think any of the couples I married knew – but it is in fact a wonderful word, rich in meaning, and I don’t know any other word in English that is a synonym. It’s “I give you my love and my loyalty.” So it’s a special kind of love. Troth is the love between two people who have made some kind of commitment to each other – who are tied by a mutual commitment, or we could say covenant – in this case, between two people who have publically promised to love, comfort, honor and keep the other, in sickness and health, forsaking all others, as long as they both shall live.
In the Hebrew Scriptures there are a number of words for “love.” They are translated with different words in English, to express their nuance. God’s love for men and women is translated as love, mercy, goodness, favor, kindness.
But there is one special Hebrew word, which is reserved for one particular kind of love – and that is the love that God has for his people Israel. And the word is HESED. Hesed love is like “troth” love. It is love and loyalty. It is love between two partners who have made some kind of commitment to each other, or have entered into a covenant with each other.
One of the greatest translators of the Bible into English was Miles Coverdale. He created the first ever complete Bible in English in 1535. He also translated the Psalms in the old Book of Common Prayer – which I grew up with. He found the word hesed, with its very distinctive meaning, almost impossible to translate, so he invented the word, “lovingkindness” – used uniquely for God’s hesed love for his people Israel.
As we read the Hebrew Scriptures what comes out more and more in this word is God’s extraordinary loyalty in the face of faithlessness. Even though God and his people have given each other their troth, God’s people Israel time and time again betray this covenant relationship. But God never betrays his troth. His steadfast love will not let Israel go. Not all Israel’s persistent waywardness could ever destroy it. Though Israel is faithless, yet God remains faithful.
And so we come to that magnificent passage from the prophet Jeremiah which we read a little while ago, one of the great passages in the whole of Hebrew Scripture – and the supreme expression of God’s hesed – his steadfast lovingkindness.
“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them out of Egypt – a covenant which they broke – even though I was their husband. But this is the covenant that I will make with Israel. I will write my law on their hearts. And I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
This new covenant is based on God’s loving forgiveness – on God’s mercy. It reveals to Israel a new depth of lovingkindness. The meaning of the word hesed is widened to include, above all, mercy – mercy and goodness – and all of it entirely undeserved.
When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC, hesed was translated as eleos – mercy. So when we pray “Kyrie eleison,” Lord have mercy, we are praying “Lord have hesed!”
But the only reason we can pray that, is that we too are in a covenant relationship with God. And this covenant was made through the loving sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. When we were baptized into Jesus Christ we made our troth to God, and God to us. We are in a relationship with God which is about love and loyalty.
Our relationship with God is often described as our baptismal covenant. This is a helpful phrase, but it can be easily misunderstood. It is not some kind of agreement or contract struck between two partners who agree to contribute certain goods to a relationship. That’s not right.
Although we may call it a covenant – it’s actually all gift. It’s all mercy. We can only dare to stand in the presence of God as forgiven sinners. It is only because of God’s hesed, his lovingkindness – the one who said “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” – only because of that, that we can stand tall before God – the merciful One who has made us righteous.
He has made us righteous through Christ’s blood shed for us. The cross stands in our midst, the cross upon which our Lord was lifted high for our sake. “I, if I be lifted up will draw all people to myself.” (Jn. 12:32) The blood shed is the blood of the new covenant, the profoundest ever sign of God’s faithful lovingkindness and mercy for us.
So what can we offer as our response to God’s mercy? How can we properly respond to all that God has done for us?
Above all, with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to the One who never gives up on us, however far we wander. Thanksgiving to the One who sent Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to find us and bring us home.
And then secondly a determination to live lives of righteousness and lovingkindness, as befits those who are betrothed to the One who is righteous and full of lovingkindness. God’s hesed, or lovingkindness, is in no way some kind of sentimental kindness (cheap grace). His demand for righteousness is insistent. But praise God, his mercy is greater even than his righteousness.
Perhaps today as we draw nearer to Holy Week, I could invite you to reflect on your own troths – the vowed covenants into which you have entered, through the mercy of God: your Baptismal vows; your Marriage vows; your Ordination vows; your Monastic vows
- How have these vows given me life? Given me freedom? Given me dignity?
- These vows are all marked by hesed – a commitment to love and loyalty.
- Where have I been less than loving, less than loyal?
- How have I wandered away, gone astray?
- How might I renew my vows in righteousness and truth?
It is perhaps at the Eucharist where we can most profoundly both celebrate and renew our Troth, our commitment and our union with our Lord. The mystery that in Christ we, by the lovingkindness and mercy of God, have been made one flesh with him who is our Lord and our God.
Let me close with this beautiful prayer from Cranmer and Coverdale’s Book of Common Prayer.
Let us pray.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
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