May 26, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Reflection on the essence of love leads
to the threshold of biblical faith

In his encyclical “God is Love,” the Holy Father wrote that purification and growth in maturity prevent eros from merely submitting to instinct.

They heal and restore its grandeur. This is because we are beings made up of body and soul. We are truly ourselves when body and soul are intimately united.

The pope said the challenge of eros can be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. “It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.” Only when both dimensions are united do we attain our full stature. Thus eros can mature and attain authentic grandeur.

Nowadays, the Christianity of the past is often critiqued as having been opposed to the body. The pope admitted that tendencies of this sort have always existed. But, he said, “The contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere thing.”

He said eroticism in our contemporary usage says the human person is to be used and exploited at will. It is a debasement of the human body relegated to the purely biological sphere. Our Christian understanding of the human body is that it is a unity in duality; spirit and matter compenetrate and each is brought to a new nobility.

How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? In a reflection on love as it appears in the Old Testament book Song of Songs, and the use of a Hebrew word that translates in the Greek as agape, the pope said we discover an experience of love which involves a real discovery of the other person, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed in the earlier concept of love.

Love becomes a concern and care for the other. It is not a “self-seeking sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved.” In biblical understanding, love is even willing to sacrifice for the beloved.

The purification of love means that it seeks to become love of “this person alone” and there is a sense of being “forever.”

Purified love looks to the eternal. It is indeed “ecstasy” as a journey out of an inward slavery toward the liberation of self-giving and leads to authentic self-discovery and the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33).

The Holy Father wrote: “In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfillment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.”

The Holy Father wrote that this somewhat complicated philosophical reflection on the essence of love really leads us to the threshold of biblical faith.

In response to the initial question, whether the different or even opposed meanings of the word “love” point to some underlying unity or whether they are really unconnected—and in response to the question whether the Bible and Christian tradition consider them to be completely separate, the answer is that they can never really be completely separated. Fundamentally, love is a single reality, but with different dimensions.

The newness of biblical faith is shown in two elements: the image of God and the image of man. The Bible tells us that God is the Creator of all, that is, there are no other gods and it tells us that God loves us. His creation is dear to him. He loves us with a personal love. He freely chooses to love us.

God’s love may be called eros and it is also agape. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship to Israel uses metaphors of betrothal and marriage; and idolatry is understood as adultery and prostitution. Another truly important facet of God’s love is that his love is agape, not only because it is freely given but also because it is a love that forgives.

There is a second new element of biblical faith. At creation, Adam was incomplete. He is a seeker, who “abandons mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh.”

Eros directs man toward marriage, to a bond which is unique. The Bible suggests that corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God there is monogamous marriage.

Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people. †


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