Suppose I asked you to explain what love is. How would you respond? The oft-repeated words of Saint Paul might come to mind:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, ESV).
If I were interested in knowing what love demands of us, or what love looks like in action, then I could scarcely be displeased with this answer. But what if I asked you to describe what it feels like to love someone? How would you try to articulate that experience?
Robert Schumann, a 19th-century German composer, saw music as a vocabulary that can help us to represent deeply-felt experiences when words alone fall short. As concert pianist Jonathan Biss writes,
In Schumann’s hands, music is the ultimate diary…He is the first composer to conceive of his music as an extension of his soul, as the medium through which his conflict with the world is expressed and, on a good day, worked through. No one, before or since, has written music so personal, emotionally specific, and unflinchingly honest.
When I play or listen to Schumann’s music, I sense that the complex emotions ebbing and flowing within me are a window into his inner world. He is able to elicit these emotions with motifs as simple as the falling fifth, a pair of notes in which the second note’s pitch is an interval of a fifth below the first note. (For those wondering what a fifth interval sounds like, think of the first and third notes of the Star-Spangled Banner or the first two notes of Bright College Years.) Many performers understand this motif as a reference to his wife Clara, indicating that the surrounding music paints an emotional landscape of what she means to him. Yet the motif itself is full of significance too. Expressive performers can make falling fifths sound like sighs tinged with audible affection. Schumann seems to say that his love for his wife feels like a deep exhalation: a loss of something within him, a pain felt in the chest.
While the sighs in Schumann’s music help us to understand what human love feels like, I believe the gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion suggest that the experience of exhalation also helps us to better appreciate the love of God.
Saint John writes, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV) and also “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13; ESV). So, the love of God saw its fullest expression when Jesus breathed his last on the cross.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark both record that the last breath of Jesus on the cross was a loud cry. (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37) I imagine this cry to be agonizing, labored, and inarticulate, reflecting visceral suffering. Yet the significance of Jesus’s exhalation extends beyond the painful loss of life. Matthew and Mark recount that at the moment Jesus died, just after letting out that last cry, the veil around the Most Holy Place in the temple of Jerusalem tore in two. (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38)
The Epistle to the Hebrews explains that the tearing of this veil is a sign that the death of Jesus opened a path for everyone to enter into the life-giving presence of God. (Hebrews 10:19-20) Just as God breathed life into Adam at the dawn of history (Genesis 2:7), so too did Jesus breathe new life into today’s weary and broken world as he hung from the cross. His final exhalation, a sigh more heartrending than any falling fifth, expressed a love so excruciating in its sacrifice and so sweet in its promises that perhaps even the best music can not represent it in fairness.
I may never fully understand what Jesus felt as he hung from the cross, but by simply letting out a deep breath I begin to see the love of God in greater clarity. His love is undeserved, which means that just as I can feel my muscles surrendering in relaxation when I exhale, so too can my soul rest from worrying about whether I have done enough to merit His love. The love of God is also sacrificial, even to the point of death. As I breathe out, I am reminded that Jesus poured out his life so that all of us would be able to hope confidently for a redeemed world free from chaos, strife, and pain. In the same way that I hear an expression of love in Schumann’s falling fifths, perhaps I can also discover echoes of God’s love in my every breath.
Daniel Yen is a senior in Timothy Dwight College studying Economics and Mathematics.