“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
What is a homily? One beggar (the preacher) telling other beggars (the listeners) where he has found bread.
So just to share some thoughts, some tips even, on how to keep this great commandment. How can we love God?
Here’s a first thing. Neither Moses in Deuteronomy nor our Lord in the Gospel, quoting him, bids us to love God. They say, “love the Lord your God”. The Lord – Yahweh, Adonai – is a version of the Name revealed to Moses at the burning bush, at the beginning of the story of the Exodus: the holy Name, the Name that means I am who I am. In other words, we are not summoned to love what Pascal called the God of the philosophers or, indeed, the God you’ll find defined in a dictionary. We are summoned to love the God, the one true God, who created the universe and then, after man’s rebellion, chose and freed and led and nurtured an obscure and truculent New Eastern tribe: the descendants of one Abraham, the Hebrews, the Israelites, the Jews. This is no abstract God, but a live, interventionist, committed, active, sometimes angry, ultimately merciful, fatherly, motherly Lord: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Hear, O Israel, love the Lord your God.” This makes it all more possible and real. The commandment is addressed to a people already addressed by their Lord, who have experienced, known and tasted his love, his commitment.
So here – with a hop, skip and a jump – is the tip: don’t try and love God, love the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The One who revealed himself at the Burning bush and on Mount Sinai has gone on, through Christmas and Pentecost, to reveal himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I don’t find that the word “God” lifts me, but the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit do. It’s the difference between eating a leftover slice of yesterday’s toast and freshly cooked salmon. Father, Son and Holy Spirit: there’s content, richness; there are resonances and connections. As the name “Lord” would light up a Jew, so Father, Son and Holy Spirit can light us up, can mobilise our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and can move us to worship and adoration and service and self-giving and all the rest. We are a trinitarian people. So let our love go in this direction.
Here is a second tip. “Love the Lord your God”, we are told. In the New Testament, the title “Lord” is attached in a special way to “our Lord”, to Jesus the Christ. Of course, the Father is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is called “the Lord, the Giver of life”. The three are one, one God, one Lord. But still, that title does in special way go to Christ, especially as risen from the dead and glorified by the Father.
The God who made himself known to Israel through the words and deeds, signs and symbols, up and downs of Israel’s story, who gave them his Name, who filled the Temple with the cloud of his presence, spoke to them through the Law and the Prophets, has now sent his Son in our humanity. Think of the love he aroused in Mary and Joseph, in the Baptist, in the disciples. The invisible has made himself visible, the incomprehensible, comprehensible. And, as St. Peter says, though we do not now see him, still we love him (cf. 1 Pet 1:8). In the Gospels and especially in the Holy Eucharist, he is present, and all but visible, audible, touchable.
Pope Benedict has written beautifully on this in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est (17): “He has become visible in as much as he “has sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). God has made himself visible: in Jesus we are able to see the Father (cf Jn 14.9). Indeed, God is visible in as much as he “has sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9), God has made himself visible: in Jesus we are able to see the Father (cf. Jn 14.9). Indeed, God is visible in a number of ways. In the love-story recounted by the Bible, he comes towards us, he seeks 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 to the great deeds by which, through the activity of the Apostles, he guided the nascent Church along its path. Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he 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 the presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so: we too, then can respond with love God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. 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”
Last thought, last tip: this love, such a love, has the potential to grasp our whole lives, our heart and soul, mind and strength. Someone has told the story of the pen he always used to write with. It wasn’t the best pen in the world; there were better ones around. But the reason he cherished and preferred this pen was that his father had given it to him. He “loved” this pen for that reason, as a gift from his Dad, therefore a reminder of his Dad. And in a similar way, the love of God can enfold our other loves. One plus of getting older is seeing more clearly how the things and people, the events and even the difficulties and sufferings of one’s life, are gifts from our heavenly Father – to be cherished of course for their own good qualities, but not because they’re perfect or the best possible, but because they are signs of the Father’s love. And so, when we cherish, appreciate and are grateful or care for or put up with them, we are deep down loving God, the Father who gives. And so all our other loves gradually are absorbed into our love for God and our love for God expands into them. If, for example, we are passionate about caring for our common home, if we’re praying that the opportunity represented by COP26 not be lost, this can be part of our love for God. (If not it may go crazy and bitter). A holy monk of Patmos once said, “There’s one commandment which is not in the Bible. And it is, ‘Love the trees’”. Yes, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5), and in the warmth of that love our hearts expand even to the trees. God does not command the impossible. His yoke is easy and his burden light. May the tree of love grow in us!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 31 October 2021