By Br. Silas Henderson, O.S.B
There is a story related by Saint Jerome that when the Apostle John was an old man, his followers would bring him to the place where the Christians assembled to celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday. When it was time for him to preach, the crowds would gather around him. Every week, his message was the same: “Little children, love one another!”
Eventually one of those closest to him asked, “Do you never tire of giving the same message?” To this, John replied, “I never tire of proclaiming this, because the Master never grew tired of proclaiming it.”
Working your way through.
In the first of the New Testament letters attributed to John, we are told: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God…if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:7, 12). For many of us, however, the meaning of love is often lost amid myriad, competing definitions, misconceptions, and images that daily bombard us. Romance, fraternity, friendship, duty, and affection are all facets of love, but are these what John was writing about?
And what about the fear we can have of being unlovable—that sense that we are not—could not be loved by God or anyone else? Sometimes we might even believe that we have to earn love.
But if we are able to rediscover the true meaning of love, and understand what it means to be loved by God, then we can also learn what it means to love ourselves and one another.
Believing in God’s Love
Too often, people are brought up with a wrong concept of God, viewing God as divine Judge rather than as a loving Creator. For some of us, the image we have of the harsh, vengeful, distant deity doesn’t allow for belief that our relationship with God begins and ends with love. But, as Cardinal Basil Hume, O.S.B., noted, “It is quite literally true that no one can, or will ever, love me more than God does; nor will any experience of mine ever, even in the dimmest way, reflect God’s love for me.”
The Gospel of Luke reinforces this truth in the parable of the shepherd who, out of concern for one lost sheep, leaves the rest of the flock to go in search of it (cf. 15:1-7). We don’t know why the sheep strayed—perhaps it was lost in the fog or just wandering aimlessly— but the shepherd never gives up the search. No matter our past or present, we can always rely on the love of the Good Shepherd who never gives up the search.
Let Yourself be Loved
When we read the Scriptures, we are reminded of the many ways God has shown his love for us. This love was most perfectly revealed in the Passion and Death of Jesus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). The fact we are, the gift of life itself, is a sign of God’s love.
This is a hard truth to accept, however, because we don’t like to receive gifts—we prefer to see ourselves as givers. We want to be the ones with power—to stand on our own, to take charge, proving our goodness by working for peace and justice in the world—serving on our terms. No one wants to see themselves as empty-handed, in need, or dependent upon others. But being a follower of Jesus means that we have to learn how to accept gifts from God—salvation, life, and love.
William H. Willimon, a Methodist pastor, observes, “It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts. ‘Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace,’ wrote John Wesley a long time ago.”
But once we have accepted the truth that everything we think is ours—our gifts, our talents, our bodies, our very lives—is actually entrusted to us by our loving God, then a new horizon opens before us. By recognizing that all is gift, we can begin to see signs of God’s love all around us: “I only know one thing: that God is good and that he loves me immensely. All the rest, calm, storm, danger and security, life and death are nothing more than momentary and changing expressions of the eternal and unchanging Love”
Understanding the reality of God’s love for us, and receiving it as a gift, frees us to love ourselves and others. As Pope Benedict XVI explains in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God Is Love,” this love of God was made visible in the person of Jesus Christ, who sought “to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross, to his appearances after the Resurrection,” and the subsequent activity of the apostles in guiding the Church.
But it does not stop there. God “encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his Word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church’s liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives.”
So, God loves us first, and continues to love us. “We too, then, can respond with love,” the Pope continues. “He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has ‘loved us first,’ love can also blossom as a response within us.” Ultimately, love doesn’t ask “why” we should love ourselves or others. If we understand that we are loved, then the only possible response is that we become lovers.
The fact is, it is only because God loves us that we can love people whom we don’t like or even know. Love and humility go hand-in-hand. In our best moments, we understand that we are made of the same “stuff” as everyone around us, both the good and the bad. The jazz artist Ethel Waters said, “I know I’m somebody, because God don’t make no junk.” If we can understand this, knowing that God creates and sustains me in love, then the same is true for everyone else. And if I am grateful for the gift of my life, then I should also be thankful for the gift of all those around me.
This is how we can learn to look at others, not just through our eyes and feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. I can give them the same love that God, in Jesus, has given to me. Pope Benedict XVI observed, “Love grows through love.” So, the more I grow in my love for God and accept the gift of God’s love, the more I am able to love others and to be loved by them. This is the love that Saint John spoke about so many centuries ago. It is a love that is not bound or limited by relationships, race, creed, or color.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus
Centuries ago, Christian mystics (such as Saint Gertude the Great and Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque) came to see the human heart of Jesus of Nazareth as the perfect icon or image of God’s love for humankind. The image of the heart of Jesus, God’s heart, wrapped in a band of thorns and crowned with fire is a powerful symbol of the burning, consuming love that God has for all of creation.
In her autobiography, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque de scribed Jesus as showing her this burning heart, saying, “See this heart, which has loved men so much that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify to them of its love.”
God’s love for us is so passionate and so intense that only the image of a consuming flame can capture its power. Love, by its very nature, is always giving of itself. God is always giving us the gift of life and love, and we are called to be that love for one another, without holding anything back.
To be a person of love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. After all, it was Jesus who said, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9). But this is easier said than done. Ultimately, when we can learn to be grateful for the immeasurable gifts that God has so freely given to each of us, especially the gift of love, then we will become more loving (and lovable) people. We can ask Jesus to inflame our hearts with the same fire of love that burns in his heart and, as Saint Catherine of Siena has said, “When we are what we are called to be, we can set the world on fire.”
Excerpt taken from Rediscovering the Meaning of Love CareNote-Catholic Perspective.