I didn’t intend this blog to be a repository where my homilies would go to die, but writing on this week’s Gospel passage was a really helpful experience in clarifying some thoughts on the mystery of God’s love, so I thought I would share it.
Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
On Tuesday, the Church will celebrate the life of Julian of Norwich, anchoress and mystic who, after experiencing a life-threatening illness at the age of 30, had a number of visions, which she wrote about in Revelations of Divine Love. This is one of my favourite extracts:
‘I desired oftentimes to know what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in ghostly understanding, saying thus: “Wouldest thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who shewed it to thee? Love. What shewed he to thee? Love. Wherefore showed it he? For love…Thus was I learned that love is our Lord’s meaning.”
Julian of Norwich ~ Revelations of Divine Love, LXXXVI
It is one of my favourites, because it answers perhaps the most profound question that we could ask about God: what is his meaning? Julian’s answer is simple and profound: love is his meaning and this meaning is no more obvious than in the Gospel passage, in which Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, just as they have been loved. But, if love is God’s meaning, this begs another question: what does this mean for us?
Perhaps the first answer to this question is that we are loved – completely and without condition. When we come to understand and accept ourselves as loved, we achieve our full dignity and stature as human beings, which cannot be achieved any other way. More than that, when we accept ourselves as the beloved of God, we come to see ourselves as the people we really are. This is not arrogant or narcissistic, because this status is not achieved by anything that we can do; it cannot be earned. The world is full to the brim of examples of people who try to achieve status by worldly means and this usually at the expense of others. No, this love is the free gift of the one who gives abundantly. Herbert McCabe put it this way:
When Christians talk of God they are just talking of the fact that we are ultimately loved, that even if all other love should fail us there is a fundamental love through which we are. Christian faith is the belief that we matter because we are loved by God.
Herbert McCabe ~ God, Christ and Us, p71
When we have understood that we are loved, which is the first answer to the question what does God’s meaning of love mean for us? we discover the next answer: it draws us to our knees in gratitude. “Thank you” is the only proper response to being loved to the very depth of your being. This thankfulness is not the grovelling kind of a slave to a master, for crumbs tossed down from the table, but the thankfulness of a heart that is overflowing in the knowledge that it is loved. Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” Perhaps what Jesus means here is that we are called friends because we have a share in the divine life, the life of love between Father and Son, made complete in the Spirit. When we find ourselves caught up in the divine dance of the Trinity, gratitude can be the only response.
If our knowledge of being loved leads us on to gratitude, then the next answer to the question must be repentance. When we come to know unconditional love, a bright light is shone on all of those foolish times when we have sinned in order to buy our status before God and before others. When we sin, we behave in a way that is beneath the dignity of ones who are loved without condition. Sin is a product of low self-esteem and if we think less of ourselves, then we cannot think highly of others. Herbert McCabe again:
The root of all sin is fear, a fear which is a disbelief in oneself, the fear that really, in oneself, one does not matter…It is this fear that gives rise to the desperate attempt to put something there, to make something of ourselves, or the desperate fight to prevent others making nothing of us…And so we make ourselves somebody through power over others and through possessions, which are a sort of power.
Herbert McCabe ~ God, Christ and Us, p70
This sorrow at our own sinfulness, whilst painful, is a good thing. It reminds me of a story told by Timothy Radcliffe who describes a cycle ride to a friend’s house on a bitter winter’s evening. He could not feel his hands when he arrived, but in the warmth of the house, he began to thaw out. This process of thawing out was quite painful, but the ultimate outcome was to regain the sensitivity of feeling. This is what it means to feel pain and sorrow at our own sinfulness: we are “thawing out in the warmth of God’s love.” (See Why go to Church? The Drama of The Eucharist.)
After all of this, the final answer to our question is that we are free: free because we no longer have to earn our dignity, our place before God; free because the sins which held us back have been put away; free because we no longer have to worry about ourselves. And this freedom allows us to give of ourselves fully in love to God and to others. If you want to understand how powerful this freedom is, then look to Christ himself: his was the kind of freedom that allowed him to lay down his life. Christ did not give up himself because God compelled him to; this would be the act of a pernicious deity. Jesus, knowing himself to be loved completely, was able to give himself, all of himself, for the love of the whole world. And so it is with us: we too are set free to love without condition, even to lay down our lives for our friends.
Love was his meaning. What does this mean for us?
It means that we can come to God to claim our full stature as his children; it means that we come to come to God in gratitude for the gift, freely given; it means that we come to God in repentance for living as less than our full selves; it means that we are set free to love as he loves us.
Love was his meaning and for us, that means everything.