In today’s Collect, in the 1st reading, the Psalm – “I love you, Lord, my strength” – in the Gospel, in the 2nd Communion antiphon, there it is: Love.
In the Gospel especially. A Pharisee asks the Lord which is the greatest commandment of the Law. He answers by quoting first from the 5th book of the Law of Moses, Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart etc”. Then he goes beyond the question, and quotes the 3rd book of the Law, Leviticus, and offers a second “which resembles it”: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
There it is: love of God and love of neighbour (and love of self).
What can we say?
Well, I hope our own experience of loving and being loved, perhaps of failing to love as well, I hope that can guide us. Our heart is a teacher.
There’s a very simple sentence, which has helped me. It comes from a Catholic philosopher, Joseph Pieper. He said, “Love is affirmation.” He was German and the German word he used means an affirmative response to something. It means saying “yes”. It has the word “Ja” in it. So it is. “Would you like some ice-cream?” asks my host. My eyes light up. “Oh, yes, please! I love ice-cream.” Or more seriously, “Will you marry me?” Her eyes light up. “Yes, I will. I love you.” To love is to say “yes”, to respond affirmatively. “Love is affirmation.”
Recently, the Holy Father published a new Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. In it, he makes much of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan illustrates the 2nd great commandment very well. Unlike the two passers-by, he responded affirmatively to the beaten-up man by the side of the road, even though that man was a Jew and he a Samaritan – old enemies. He did First Aid, put him on his donkey, took him to A & E, as it were, paid for his treatment and said, I’ll be back. He loved his neighbour. He said yes to this guy. He did good things for him. He willed his well-being – another definition of love. As a Samaritan, he was risking a negative response from the person he was trying to help. He was practical. He used his money. He gave his time. He had to change his timetable. Perhaps he missed an appointment.
There’s a story from the life of St Hugh. He was riding along a road on his way to an appointment with the King. A dead body was lying by the road. “To bury the dead” is one of the 14 Works of Mercy. (Actually, in 2016 Pope Francis proposed a 15th: care for creation). St Hugh dismounted, dug a grave and buried the man. He was late for his appointment. It didn’t matter. He had been saying “yes”.
To illustrate the first great commandment, we can think of our Lady. The divine messenger comes to her. The Lord wants her to become the mother of his eternal, now-to-be-incarnate, Son. He invites her to be the one through whom he could come close to us, become our neighbour as it were. And she responds affirmatively: “I am the servant of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word”. She gave her “yes”. She took the task on. She’s the best commentary on the first commandment, even to the letter. She loved with her “mind”: “how can this be since I am a virgin?” It was a reasonable question. She loved with her “soul”: “My soul glorifies the Lord”, she would sing. She loved with her “heart”. St Luke says she treasured and pondered in her heart all the words she heard about her child. Other passages also talk of loving the Lord our God with all our “strength”. Mary invested all her human, womanly, motherly strength in having this child – being a parent can be exhausting. And when her “soul” was pierced under the Cross, she “stood”. She didn’t collapse. She loved with the strength of her silence – silent trust that the terrible thing before her eyes could somehow turn to good.
“On these two commandments, ends Jesus, hang the whole Law and the prophets too.” Love isn’t abstract. It’s not just a nice feeling inside. Love expresses itself. Love goes to the gym and does work-outs. Love runs on into many things. The Jews said there were 613 commandments; we needn’t be so mathematical. We can put it this way, love creates a culture. Love creates a whole range of behaviours, small and great: even just simple courtesies and good manners, the daily kindnesses. Love lays the table. Love creates good spaces, positive environments, warm family homes, welcoming Christian communities. Pope Paul VI in his day spoke of “the civilisation of love”. Pope Francis is calling for universal fraternity and social friendship. One can respond to that and say, “Get real!” It’s a dog-eat-dog world. We must just look after ourselves and stick with our friends. But isn’t it worth trying? And if we don’t, if we just shrug our shoulders, aren’t we actually endorsing the opposite? We can always begin again, in our own circle and looking for ways to go beyond. If we don’t strive to make things better, aren’t we’re just allowing them to get worse? We might quote Tennyson: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Jesus lost on the Cross, but what happened after? Easter means no drop of real love is ever lost.
And the love of God? The love of God today? We can ask: who does God, who does our Father, love above all? Surely, his beloved Son (and us in him). And if we love in tune with God, the Holy Spirit will turn our love to Christ as well. “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ”, says St Benedict. And how? I think there’s an answer in the 2nd reading, from St Paul. He says to the Thessalonians, you have converted from idolatry, you have begun to serve the true God, and now “you are waiting for Jesus”. It’s a definition of the Christian. Waiting for him “to come” and “to save”. Waiting, St Paul means, with patience, with trust and confidence; hanging on in there while still looking upwards and outwards. Jesus mentions the Law, “and the prophets also”. They, in their different ways, waited for the coming of Jesus. He “comes” in the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is a sign he will come in our troubles and beyond them, come to “save”. “Waiting for Jesus” like this is a wonderful way of loving. It’s responding affirmatively, saying “Yes” to the Lord our God.
May the Holy Spirit help us do so!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 October 2020)