The Love Revolution
What follows is a very much condensed outline of my book “The Vision of Faith: Love and the Renewal of the Church,” a work which I have self published on the internet site Lulu.com. I propose it because I feel it offers some genuinely new insights, which could be of great importance, and which deserve wider circulation.
From the lips of Jesus himself, we learn that the Commandment of love of God and Neighbour lies at the very centre of our Faith. (Mt 22:34-40) Jesus made this doctrine the heart of all his teaching, so it is of vital importance that we understand fully what it is that he is asking of us in this.
The love of God and neighbour is quoted by Jesus as being the summit of the understanding of this commandment attained by God’s people in the Old Testament (See Deut. 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18); but Jesus now takes this commandment to a new level, when he tells us that he gives us “a new commandment; love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” (Jn 13:34) He goes on to add a crucially important observation: “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
What is love?
Our Faith, then, is all about love. If we were to be asked “What is love?” we might give various answers. But ultimately, all love involves a relationship with another, a search for union with them. The perfection of love is seen in the Holy Trinity, where the union of love is so great that the three Persons are truly one, the only difference remaining being their personhood. We have been created for love, ultimately, the love of God himself; our hearts will know no rest until we are one with him, as St Augustine reminds us. A distinction is often made between the sort of love that seeks the fulfilment of the self (eros), and that which seeks the good of the other person (agape), but usually, both elements will be present. A mother will find self fulfilment in the self sacrificing love she gives to her child, for example.
But in speaking of love in religious terms, we must always remind ourselves that all love has its origin in the God who is Love, as St John tells us. (1Jn 4:8) So the love we are talking about in our observance of the Great Commandment of love is Divine love, not simply human love. It would be a mistake, however, to think that there are two sorts of love which we practice in our lives, a divine love and a human love; rather, because of our baptism, our human power of loving has been transformed into a sharing in God’s love. This is because our very lives have been transformed by Grace; as St Paul says, “Now I live, not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians, 2:20)
The God of Love in Revelation
Our understanding of the second part of the Great Commandment in the context of the New Testament has traditionally come largely from the parable of the Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:29-37) and from the great description of the Last Judgement in Matthew (25:31-46). This is, of course, both valid and understandable; but the question must be asked whether this gives the full picture. St John, both in the Gospel and in the letters, gives a rather different teaching.
God is love, says St John (1Jn, chapter 4). God’s very nature, then, is love; a love that he pours out into his creation: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Jesus stresses the love that he shares with the Father: “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30); “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (Jn 14:10) He then reveals that God’s love is shared with us through him: “On that day you will understand that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you. Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves me; and anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him.” (Jn 14: 20-1). This love is to be shared in the Community: “This is my commandment; love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) St John is not so much concerned with the helping of the poor and needy; his stress is much more upon the love that must form the essential bond which unites the body of believers, both with the Lord and with each other. This is an aspect of love of neighbour which has been very much neglected in the living out of the Gospel message.
This love of one another supersedes all purely human relationships: this is the meaning of those misunderstood and therefore neglected words of Jesus: “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt 12:50) This is another crucially important text. Jesus is pointing out that new relationships are established in the Kingdom of God. Purely natural relationships have been overtaken by the much deeper bonds forged by being of one body with him and our brethren. The natural relationship is not being denied; but it must be taken up into the deeper, greater relationship if it is to have any relevance in the Kingdom.
Jesus, God’s love for man, and man’s love for God
Jesus could be said to stand at the crossroads between God and ourselves. He is God’s perfect expression of his love for us; and because he is the New Adam, the head of our race, he is man’s perfect expression of love in response to the Father’s love. We have been reborn into him thus sharing his life, and so we can say that whatever he does, we do too, if we are true to him. So we can now love God perfectly, as the Commandment demands, if we love him with the love of Jesus himself, whose life and love we share. And because Jesus is God’s perfect Word of love to the world, we too share in this role: we, too, are now God’s perfect word of love to the world, or we should be, if we are living the Christ-life that we share as it should be lived. This is the essence of the love of neighbour that is at the heart of our faith.
The heart of love
This love for the world, for our brothers and sisters, is firstly to be shared with those who form one body, one flesh with us in the one bread of the Eucharist. We have tended to think of the demands of this love mainly in negative terms: we must not harm our neighbour, or we must treat him with politeness, or perhaps a rather pallid charity. But far, far more is required of us. Just as man and wife become one flesh in the marriage bond, so too the perfection of Christian love, or union, is found when those around the table of the Eucharist become one body, or one flesh, in the body of Christ which they share in Holy Communion.
The Holy Eucharist, then, is the source of Christian love in its fullness, a love which has a marital quality about it. This is a love so deep that no merely human love can begin to compare with it. The similarity which binds Christ and his Church into one flesh with the love binding man and wife in marriage was noted by St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (5:24), hence his use of the parallel. We could continue the link by regarding marriage as a sort of school of love; perhaps we should see it as God’s way of teaching us how to love. The tragedy is that we have forgotten how to apply the lessons learnt to areas of life beyond the confines of our immediate families. We should perhaps speak rather of the need to be in love with our neighbour.
This demand represents a real revolution; in the Eucharistic community, we are called upon to love one another with a love which is deeper by far than the highest forms of love which are purely natural: the love of husband and wife even, or parent and child as it is found in the secular sphere. (Cf. Mt 12:46-50) In the beginning, the call of Jesus to his followers to love was truly revolutionary, but unfortunately, in the centuries since then, we have systematically sanitised and emasculated these demands, until they have become equivalent to ordinary courtesy. It can surely be said that most of us have not even begun to realise the true implications of the demand of Jesus that we love the Lord our God with our whole heart, and our neighbour as ourselves.
The witness of our love
This, then, is the love that Jesus was talking about when on the evening before his death, he said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you. It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognise you as my disciples.” (13:35) The truth of this saying of Jesus was, of course, fulfilled to the letter in the words of the Christian writer Tertullian, writing around the year 200, who tells us of the amazed comment of the pagans: “See how these Christians love one another!” (Apologeticum, 39:7) We should note that the comment was referring to the love shared among the Christian Community rather than the love they were showing to the poor and needy in particular. We should note, too, the importance of the words “just as I have loved you” that we so often miss. The love of Jesus is so deep that he willingly lays down his life for us. We must love our brothers and sisters just as Jesus loves them; surely a challenge without limit that should be a goal which we must always keep before us.
Tertullian would find it impossible to make the same comment as regards the Christians of our day; yet the words of Jesus apply just as much now as then. We do not stand out very clearly, as did the Christians of Tertullian’s day, from the secularised people among whom we live, who would never make any such comment about us. This surely indicates a huge failing in the way in which we live our Christian lives.
Our love of those in need
Our duty of love of others is usually expressed merely in terms of helping the needy; this is an essential aspect of Christian love, as Our Lord himself made clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in the description of the Last Judgement that we find in St Matthew’s Gospel, as we noted earlier. This is the love of neighbour spoken of in Leviticus 19:18, but this love must flow from, and be nourished by that deeper love we experience at the table of the Eucharist if it is to be truly Christian love; otherwise it runs the danger of being occasional and sporadic, or even degenerating into mere philanthropy or the assuaging of our feelings of guilt. Sometimes I wonder whether we concentrate on this aspect of love at least partly to avoid the deep commitment to one another that is truly demanded by the Christ-life that we share. Only when helping the needy is underpinned by the love we share at the table of the Lord’s Supper will it be truly part of the witness of love about which Christ was talking.
Love, the heart of the Church
Love, then, is the heart of the Christian message, the very life blood of the Church. The importance of love is often stressed, so much so that it is in danger of becoming a cliché. The most urgent task of the Church today, as in any age, is to seek renewal, to pray to the Lord for the new heart and the new Spirit which has to be the main element in any search for such renewal. We must all examine our own hearts and lives, asking the Lord to give us the discernment we need to appreciate our own need for a radical renewal of the love of God and of one another which could then bring deep happiness and fulfilment in our own lives, while making us at the same time a shining light to a broken world which would then begin to say once more, “See how these Christians love one another.” It is but a short step from admiration to a desire to share that love which Jesus himself bought for us at so dear a price, and pours out into our waiting hearts with infinite generosity. This sort of love, then, must be at the very heart of any presentation of the Good News, if it is to be authentic and have any chance of lasting success.
What must I do, Lord?
How, then, should we be living our Christian lives so that this love will transform them? The love we have been talking about is deep and intense: such love of its very nature cannot be shared directly with too many people. It must spread outwards like the ripples caused by a stone thrown into a pond. One of the great problems facing the Church today is that her structures are not particularly well suited to the living of the Christian life in terms of this deep and intimate love. The present parochial structure in the Church, in other words, is too large for the relationships of love mentioned above to develop successfully; there are simply too many parishioners in the parish as traditionally understood for this to happen. The larger parish today would more fittingly be a diocese, formed of several truly local Churches, with the parish priest being the bishop, who would at least have a chance of being close to his people in a way that the bishop of today cannot, as he is a distant, remote figure, who might live hundreds of miles from some of his flock.
An extra layer is thus envisaged in the structures of the Church, with the basic unit being the truly local Church consisting of between ten and twenty families, with its priest, married or celibate according to his own personal charism, to lead it. It is vital that the group should be led by its priest; a local Church without the Eucharist at its heart would be unthinkable.
All the local Churches in a definable area, such as a city, would form a diocese, with its bishop (in many cases the present parish priest) at the head. The local Churches would meet, worship and pray together in each other’s homes, as well as in the parish church. The Sunday celebration of Mass would take on a new splendour, with the parish priest (or bishop) officiating as chief celebrant, with the local priests his concelebrants. The present diocese would become an archdiocese, a grouping of the new, smaller dioceses, with the present bishop elevated to the rank of Archbishop.
The notion of a shortage of priests in a Church organised in such a way simply would not make sense. In any group, people with leadership qualities tend to stand out. The priest is simply the one in the group, or local Church, who shows the ability to lead and thus serve the others, duly called, formed and ordained for the task.
The answer to the present crisis, then, lies in the hands of the Church herself, or rather in the hands of those in the positions of authority at present in the Church. If the body of Christ is starved of ministers and deprived of the Eucharist which is her heart and life, vitally necessary for her continued existence in any time and place, then those who could do something about it by being more open to the new and exciting possibilities that beckon will have some serious questions to answer when called upon to give an account of their stewardship.
(M.P. Burns, Bridlington, England)
The Love Revolution