Today’s 2nd reading, Alleluia and Gospel use the word “love” 20 times.
That says something, and it raises the question, what love? Is it common or garden love or something more? Not against ordinary love, no, but a kind of love-plus. Not just a fruit-juice love, non-alcoholic, but love so many degrees proof, love with a spirit in it.
These 20 mentions of love come either from St John’s 1st Letter or from his Gospel. Should we call it Johannine love? Or Gospel-love? Or, given that Jesus is speaking at the Last Supper, Eucharistic love? Or Christ-ic love: “Love one another as I have loved you”?
Let’s now, though, go off at a tangent. We have another reading, the first, from chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles. It is an extract from a longer story. Interestingly, it never mentions love. What it relates is the first conversion of Gentiles, by way of St Peter. It is no small moment and has a lot to do with love, even if the word is missing. Let’s explore it.
Peter is important in Paschaltide. Peter is the first apostle to see the risen Jesus. Peter stands up and gives the first Christian homily on Pentecost day. Peter, with John at his side, works the first apostolic miracle commanding the Temple cripple to stand up and walk. And in today’s first reading, he is the first to see that the Gentiles too – represented by Cornelius and his household – are to be accepted by God, can receive the very same Holy Spirit as came at Pentecost, can be baptised and become Christians. We take it for granted that Christ died for all and that God can give his Holy Spirit to anyone of any race or colour or age. We take it for granted that the Church is Catholic and that it has room for anyone who believes. Do we say ‘thank you’ enough, I wonder? But, in the reading, Peter’s six Jewish companions are taken aback when the Holy Spirit comes down on Cornelius and co. They are “astonished.” The Acts of the Apostles is at pains to point out what a good man Cornelius was: thoroughly decent, religiously-minded, interested in Judaism, with a heart for the poor. But still his skin, as it were, was the wrong colour. He was a Roman, a soldier, part of the military arm of the political power that had colonised Judaea. Objectively, Cornelius represented the oppressor and Peter and his fellows the oppressed. And beyond this, Cornelius was a pagan. Today, Peter did something he had never done before in his entire life: he went into a non-Jewish house. Talk of culture shock! Talk of a paradigm shift! This was a conversion for Peter and his companions as much as for Cornelius. Something new was happening. Christianity was ceasing to be a Jewish sect and was now standing forth as universal. We might remember how Peter and John ran to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. John, writing of love, was spelling out one meaning of that discovery. Peter, going to visit Cornelius, was living another. There’s novelty everywhere. Peter, in the inner courtyard perhaps, proclaims the Gospel to Cornelius’ household and the Holy Spirit comes upon them. It’s a second Pentecost: not in Jerusalem, not on Jews, but in Caesarea and on Gentiles. So the dividing wall falls down, and, as St Paul will put it, “through Christ both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). And God is praised.
John, today, speaks of this new Gospel-, Eucharistic, Christic love that’s now in the world. Peter lives it, experiences it. It’s the same thing. It’s the Resurrection playing out. Jesus, in John, talks of his love expressing the Father’s and of how ours should express his, cascading from above. Here is Peter realising that God welcomes everyone, circumcised or not. He interiorises that and crosses the threshold of a Gentile house. Here is the Holy Spirit falling on that household as it had fallen on the Apostles. It’s the same cascading. This is a love that doesn’t close itself against the action of God but opens to it. Here are a Jew and Gentile meeting together in the bond of peace, in Christ and taking bold, reconciling steps towards each other, instinctive enemies (Israelis and Palestinians, as it were) turning friends. Here’s a new kind of relationship. And Peter, notice, didn’t just drop in and then go; he was begged to “stay” and he did. Gentiles and Jews were now living together. A new common home, a new house, a new Temple was rising up for human beings to live with God and with each other. In time, churches would be built and bring together the most unlikely combinations. This is what the Holy Spirit does. He is the love of the Father and the Son in person. He does relationship. “Sing a new song to the Lord”, says the Psalm. This is it. The album was released, as it were, on Easter Sunday. The song came out of the empty tomb. And now, if only we want it, there’s this music from God humanity can come together and sing. Cornelius’ heart and mind are opened to the Gospel, and Peter is broken open too. A new kind of heart – a Catholic heart – is born.
Today’s readings are one reality seen from two sides. Love described, love inscribed.
Perhaps the worst of this pandemic is simply the wounds it has inflicted on love, on the will to love and the expression of love. Contacts have diminished, connections been lost, all kinds of “communion” suspended. Cases of domestic violence have soared. The Holy Father has asked us this May to pray with our Lady, via the Rosary, that this evil thing may be taken away. It has been like a long winter, this pandemic. Isn’t it time for spring? And the real spring is what is always springing from the empty tomb, what is always ready to come down from above: Christ rising from the tomb, the Holy Spirit falling from heaven, and a divine, Catholic heart, a God-sized heart for each other, being born in Peter and the Church and ourselves. Yes, “sing a new song to the Lord”. “Love one another as I have loved you.”