April 22, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Christian love is self-sacrificing, open to all, forgiving

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

During this Holy Year of Mercy, we are giving a lot of thought to the mystery of God’s love as it has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. His teaching about love and the example he gave us, through the supreme sacrifice he made dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, allow us to see love in a whole new light.

We hear a lot about love every day. Human love is celebrated, and often abused, in advertising and the media. Most of the time, what passes for love in our culture is only a pale imitation of the real thing.

Genuine love—the love that Jesus commands us to share with one another—is of a different order. It’s more than kindness or affection or even a romantic attachment or friendship with another person. The love that disciples of Jesus Christ are called to demonstrate has an edge to it, a tougher quality than we are used to associating with love.

What makes Christian love different from other forms of love or affection? There are many different ways this question can be answered, but I’d like to focus on the following three: 1) Christian love involves sacrifice; 2) Christian love is not selective but embraces all; and 3) Christian love requires forgiveness (mercy). Let me say a few words about each of these.

The self-sacrificing love of Jesus, and all the martyrs who followed him, really does set Christian love apart from other kinds of love. Jesus has set the standard, and he has made it very clear that there is no greater love than to give up everything, including our very lives, for others.

This kind of radical love is not for everyone. Most of us will not be required to die for another. But to the extent that we seek to follow Jesus day in and day out, we will be called upon to sacrifice our own desires, our egos and many of our creature comforts for the good of others.

Pope Francis frequently exhorts us to move beyond our “comfort zones” in order to share the joy of the Gospel with others, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Christian love is not self-serving or self-aggrandizing. It is given for the sake of others—usually at some cost to ourselves.

When I say that Christian love is not selective but embraces all, I mean that it forces us to broaden our horizons and look beyond what is most familiar to us—our own kind. The parables of Jesus frequently jar the sensibilities of his audience by making Samaritans, who were the cultural pariahs of Jesus’ time, the good guys. Tax collectors and sinners find a place at our Lord’s table when most good Jews wouldn’t have anything to do with them. And Jesus heals everyone—even the detested Romans. His love was never selective. It burst all boundaries, and was accessible to everyone who sought his healing power.

Finally, what distinguishes Christian love from all other forms of warmth and affection is its readiness to forgive even the most heinous offenses against God and humanity. From the cross, Jesus begged his Father to forgive his enemies, the foolish, ignorant and self-centered people who insulted, tortured and murdered him.

God’s mercy is boundless, as Pope Francis reminds us. It is not limited to those who have repented and are “deserving” of forgiveness. Divine mercy extends to all without exception. This is perhaps the hardest edge of Christian love. Whereas we want to think of love as soft and malleable, God’s loving is unrelenting. He pursues us aggressively, inviting us to turn to him and accept his love and forgiveness, and never settling for the “cheap thrill” of retribution or vengeance.

Christian love is self-sacrificing, open to all and forgiving. It is the kind of love that we encounter every time we reflect on the Gospels or read the lives of the saints. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says in the Gospel reading for this weekend, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

The key phrase is “as I have loved you.” His is no ordinary love. It is a supernatural gift from above that we are privileged to receive and commanded to share with others if we wish to be his disciples.

This Easter season, in the Holy Year of Mercy, let’s pray that our love will be different. Let’s love one another as Christ loves us. †

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