Year A Easter 6
Love is difficult to talk about, right? If you had to get up here, right now, and announce to the world exactly why you love your spouse, or your mom or dad, or children, you could probably say some wonderful things about them, the sparkle in their eyes, their laugh, how they are the very apple of your eye. But let’s say all that good stuff disappears. Say you’re in the position of God and you love even the sinners of the world, those ungrateful, vice-ridden, all-round difficult people who seem to have no good qualities to speak of – how then would you describe your love? What is love, and why do we bestow it on the people we do? It goes deeper than affinity, or what someone can do for you in return, and so any attempt to describe the qualities of someone that makes them loveable can be helpful, but ultimately falls short of the reality of what love really is.
This is as it should be, because Love is the greatest virtue in the universe, the very stuff of which God is made. It has no upper limit but grows on boundlessly into eternity, always expanding within our hearts the further we allow it to direct our course. This is why, when Dante in the Paradiso is taken to see the Celestial Rose, the great mobile of orbs that make up the heavenly hierarchy, some saints are actually closer to God than others. The close ones who see more of God are the ones who have loved greatly in this life, who have displayed the virtue of charity in heroic amounts. It isn’t that those who are further out in orbit are unhappy. No, they are perfectly happy and full to perfection with the virtue of love, it’s just that those who are closer are more perfectly happy and more full to perfection with the virtue of love (remember, there’s no outer limit). And how does this love of the saints manifest itself? In a full, still, silence, a manifest gaze of devotion – God beholds his beloved saints and they behold him. This is what the Church speaks of when she references the Beatific Vision as the very substance of our afterlife. It is to see clearly the face of God, a face which here and now is veiled and mysterious.
St. Paul encourages us always to be ready to explain our love for Jesus. Hopefully we are all able to live our lives in such a way that people every now and then become curious – why are you so different? Why don’t you cheat at school, or badmouth the boss at work? Why are you so honest with your timecard when you punch in and out, why do you have such a good marriage? Why do you seem so happy even when you ought to be frustrated, or have such respectful children? When these sorts of questions arise, it is our responsibility to be ready with an explanation. In this day and age, it helps simply to be able to say what your faith means to you and how it has given you a reason for hope and a sense of purpose; a non-confrontational, simple declaration of happiness. This is the sort of witness that is winsome. We’re all part of a story – it’s your task to point out that it has a happy ending.
But ultimately, when we talk about faith it isn’t about an idea or a philosophy or a community organization; we are referencing the greatest expression of love in the history of the universe, how God made us out of nothing simply to share a life with us, how he showed up on earth to find us and rescue us, how he meets us in the grace and power of Holy Communion in a fragile and vulnerable state under the shadow of mere bread. In the Eucharistic host he is at our mercy, powerless, but is thrilled to do so because it is the way in which he joins with us in our very physical selves and shapes our souls to his own. This is pure love – How do you talk about that?
I’m reminded of being back in high school and, when there was a girl I liked how intensely tongue-tied I would get. I never talked to girls I liked, that would’ve been terrifying, no, but I would try to be nearby. Being a teenager is hilarious, I’m sorry guys, it’s true, and all of those emotions and warm fuzzies get your head turned around and you can’t think straight because you are in love with this girl you’ve never talked to and can’t talk to and can’t you can’t even admit it to your friends because they will mercilessly troll you about it. The problem isn’t new, and 200 years ago Jane Austen wrote in her novel Emma, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
This is why St. Paul doesn’t leave his advice merely at telling us to be ready with explanations; he first insists that we must sanctify Christ in our hearts. No explanation in the world, no intellectual commitment can fill the place that would be left empty without Jesus. He is not merely an idea. He is a person, and people are meant to be loved.
Jesus says something pretty challenging, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Don’t hear those words as a moral rulebook or a contingency, as in, if you really loved me you would do this for me. Jesus isn’t passive aggressively guilt tripping or blackmailing us into being good people. What he is saying is, you say you love me and that is really great, but true love goes beyond words. True love is an act of the will, embodied in a million tiny little actions every day, the faithfulness and commitment of a life lived sacrificially for another person.
Jesus goes on to assure us that we aren’t left alone in a struggle to earn his love. That’s not the way grace works. The way grace works is that God tells us how great we can be and then he helps us actually achieve it. Jesus says that God the Father “remains with you, and will be in you.” The two shall become one.
Pope Benedict XVI says, “The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.” (Deus Caritas Est) In other words, love is deeper than words alone. It shows itself in visible acts of Christian devotion, in keeping the law, and treating our neighbor as ourselves.
This will only happen when we give ourselves totally to God. Benedict goes on to teach, “the ‘commandment’ of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given.”
All of this is a gift. Our lives, our families, the Church, deep conversations at the coffee shop, the stippled spots on a trout’s shining side, the smell of a baby’s head, finches’ wings in flight…all of it is a gift of love poured out upon us by God the Father. He says not a word; his creation does the speaking for him. And if it wasn’t clear enough, the death of Our Lord on the Cross, the silence of his tomb, and that quiet moment when you receive his precious body onto your tongue in Holy Communion speak the loudest word of all.
Dear Jesus, may we love you beyond all words.