Tokens of Love and Loss
The shadows are lengthening over a stormy North Sea, as we enjoy our fish and chips in the local fish restaurant. My companion has lived here all his life and recalls a disastrous storm that once wiped out half of the fishing fleet of this little Scottish town. “In those days,”he recalls, “the fishermen always wore a single earring with a unique pattern. If a man was drowned, his body could be identified by this earring, and the little gold it contained would provide some meagre resource with which his widow and family might manage to survive for a while after his death.”
I try to imagine the feelings of the grieving widow, standing on the harbor wall, gripping this last small token connecting her to the loved one the sea has claimed. And I think of the friends of Jesus, devastated by his brutal death, hopeless in the face of such total loss.
Across the country, in the southwest of Scotland, a modest but beautiful stately home, lovingly refurbished, tells another story—but you might easily miss it. Let’s pick up the tale nearly 250 years after its beginning. A group of visitors, who happen to be members of a choral society, are exploring the house with the help of a guide, who points out some interesting stucco work on the ceiling. Their eyes focus on a few bars of music, incorporated into the original plasterwork back in 1760. And amazingly, one of the choristers brings out binoculars, examines the notes on the ceiling and recognizes the opening bars of the traditional Scottish song “There’s nae luck aboot the hoose,” composed by the Greenock poet Jean Adam (1704–65).
The guide sighs as he recalls that the unfortunate Fifth Earl of Dumfries, who commissioned the house, had every reason to build this song into the home that brought him so little happiness. His first wife died prematurely, and so did their 10-year-old son. Hoping nevertheless for a much-wanted heir, he married again, but the second marriage remained childless. At this disclosure, the musical visitors spontaneously break into song, and the notes on the ceiling leap to life, echoing a story of love and loss and bringing 18th-century tears to 21st-century eyes.
Heading south now to London, as a visitor to the Foundling Hospital Museum in Bloomsbury, I pore over some of the tokens left in the 18th century by mothers forced by circumstance to abandon their babies.
An array of simple items is displayed—trinkets of no inherent value, like buttons or coins or fragments of fabric, once pinned to a baby’s clothes so that in future years the child’s natural parent could be identified should she ever return to reclaim her child. One small pendant is engraved with a child’s initials and the words “You have my love, though we must part.” Why these tokens? Simply because foundlings are meant to be found. And the hope was never fully relinquished that these children would one day be reunited with their own families, reconnected by a thread of fabric or an old button.
All these incidents tell of loss and the human longing to reach beyond that loss, to tell the story of the past to unknown listeners in the future. They tell of love, its pain and sorrow and sacrifice, as well as its unquenchable hope.
Before his death, Jesus tells his friends that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you”(Jn 14:26). With this promise ringing in our ears, we approach Pentecost. It is a promise that what seems to be inconsolable loss will lead us to a new level of union with God that we cannot even imagine.
By contrast with our very ordinary tokens of human love, Jesus leaves us with a “token” as immense as eternity in the gift of his Spirit. It assures us that however lost we may frequently feel, we are created to be found. It invites us to let the song of our aching hearts echo down the ages, confident of God’s open ear and loving response. It takes up residence in our innermost being, reminding us of all that divine love implies and allowing the broken threads of our stories to be reconnected, woven into a new tapestry and interpreted afresh in the light of resurrection.
It is a mother’s tender promise: “You have my love, though we must part,” and our creator’s pledge: “I have branded you on the palms of my hands”(Is 49:16). This promise has your name on it.