The word love has to be the most misused word in our language. We often say we love our house, our car, our holiday or even ice cream. Then we use exactly the same word to describe our feelings for our spouse, family, friends or children. If language is a window into meaning, then we are in strife at the loose way we transfer the same word for vastly different feelings and realities. At least I hope we feel differently about people over possessions. The way some people go on about their car, pets or money we begin to wonder.
The love Jesus encourages us to have in today’s Gospel is a very particular love. He tells us not just to love one another, but to ‘love as I have loved you’. The core of Jesus’ love for us is sacrificial love, where he laid down his life that we might live. While love is a popular word, and even more popular notion, in our music, film, art and literature, sacrificial love is not something we hear much about these days or that we embrace very easily. Loving someone in the popular imagination has come to mean hanging in there until someone better comes along, or we grow bored of each other sexually or personally. Often it entails keeping the exit door on commitment nice and handy for the quick getaway. But this hardly describes a love that involves sacrifice.
Sacrificial love is demonstrated in deeds not words. It states that there is no point in saying we love anyone unless our actions follow the profession we make. Sacrificial love is not just about warm and fuzzy feelings; it is an intensely practical affair where our love is judged by our gentleness, kindness and patience with each other. Christian love is not arrogant or rude, it does not drag other people down, but rejoices and weeps when others are successful or downhearted. Loving as Jesus has loved means telling the truth with compassion, forgiving, working at trust and holding on to faith in the face of difficult times. Jesus does not promise us that this commandment is easy, just necessary if we are to love as he loves us.
While sacrificial love demands of us that we die unto self, Jesus never asked us to ‘kill’ ourselves. The distinction matters. All too often the Church has been guilty of giving out this teaching in a way that people thought they should put up with violent, undignified and soul-destroying behaviour from their spouse, children, parents, family or friends. Sacrificial love is never destructive. It is a free gift where we sometimes forego other options, opportunities and even good things for a love and life that is even better. The Lord laid down his life for us and in turn the Father raised him up to a glorified life. What’s true for him is true for us. We lay down our lives for each other so we can take up a new and richer life. We are never meant to destroy ourselves or stay in relationships that rip our dignity from us. Sometimes the most Christian thing we can do is to set up boundaries or make decisions that protect ourselves from behaviour which is neither loving nor Christian.
May this Eucharist then grant us the wisdom to love people and not things. May it help us embrace sacrifice in a way that leads to life and may it give courage to sort out the relationships that affirm our dignity and help us grow in faith, hope and love.
© Richard Leonard SJ