For our reflection this Sunday we are presented with the very heart of the Gospel message: Love one another as I have loved you. We are all familiar with love. We all experience love in our lives both on the giving and the receiving end. We know what love is and it is something that we all probably feel qualified to speak about. We have grown up feeling love towards our families and being loved in return by them.
In our teens and early twenties we have all of us surely had strong feelings of love towards someone we were particularly attracted to. This has frequently blossomed into marriage, and in marriage that love has deepened and matured.
We might consider that we are even more expert in this area because at times in our lives we have been unhappy in love. We have known the pains of love. It might be that our love was unrequited or that we were deceived or betrayed in love, or a long relationship went sour. We have experienced the hurts that love can sometimes cause us.
However, as in all things, what we humans know about love pales into insignificance in comparison to love in God’s understanding. Jesus chooses his words very carefully when he says: Love one another as I have loved you. He doesn’t say: Love one another as you think you ought. No, we are to love in the same way that he loves.
Jesus presents himself as the example and model of how to love. And this is just as it should be because Christ is, of course, the very embodiment of perfect love.
We have already noted that that the love we normally experience as human beings frequently has its basis in either attraction or proximity. We love the ones we are attracted to and we love those with whom we live closely and with whom we were brought up.
The opposite of love is hate. And we usually hate those we are repelled from or those who are foreign to us.
But with Christian love we are asked to go beyond these human limitations. We are challenged to love everyone regardless of whether we like them or not; regardless of whether they have hurt us; regardless of whether they share our beliefs, or customs, or way of life.
Each human being is created out of love by God and in his own image. Each human being is loved by God even if they are mired in the very depths of sin. And God will never alienate himself from that which he has created.
If God loves everyone and he asks us to love one another just as he loves us, then we must love everyone regardless of unattractive qualities or any other obstacles.
This is not easy. But this love we are talking about is not about going gooey over someone. It is about appreciating and valuing that person, whoever they might be, as a child of God and the worthy object of his love.
The distinction can be explained by recognising that the love we usually experience is an emotion while the love that Christ is referring to is more technically called a theological virtue.
We usually distinguish between these two types of love by calling the theological virtue of love charity. This is, however, easily confused in modern-day English because the word charity is used most specifically in relation to the care of the poor or attending to some other good cause.
So, when we speak about Christian love we mean that we treat all around us with the special regard that is due to one created by God out of love. There may be no special attraction to that person, indeed there may be many things about them that we dislike, but we overcome these personal preferences because we see in them the beauty of a being created by God.
An important aspect of the emotion we call love is the willingness to make sacrifices for the person we love. This is classically shown in the picture of the mother pelican who in times of famine will stab her own breast with her beak to let her chicks feed on her blood. This is why you often see a pelican carved on the front of an altar; it is an allusion to the sacrifice of Christ.
We humans are quite willing to make enormous sacrifices for the sake of love, even in extreme circumstances going so far as to give our own lives. It is quite commonplace to hear of someone who spends years in heroic service caring for a loved one.
Jesus is, of course, a great example and inspiration in this regard. But what is different about Jesus is that he sacrificed himself in order to redeem the sins of the world. He gave his life for the salvation of those who caused him harm, for those who rejected him, for those who gave no thought to the things of God. He gave his life for us sinners.
This is much more difficult. If we are to follow Jesus and to put in to practice his commandment to love one another then we must realise that it is going to involve this kind of sacrifice. Not sacrifices for the ones we like and admire and appreciate, but rather sacrifices for those we hate and dislike and are repelled by.
This requires great effort and strength of will on our part. It means seeing beyond the superficial and realising that under a hard-exterior lives the unique creation of God.
We don’t meet a Sadaam Hussein, or an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin every day of the week. It would be a test indeed to find love in our hearts for those who have committed despicable crimes against humanity.
But we do meet many ordinary people we simply don’t take to. We do meet people who have deeply hurt us. We do meet people who we actively dislike. In these cases the sacrifice we are asked to make is to see beyond the merely superficial. The sacrifice we are asked to make is to overcome our dislikes. The sacrifice we are asked to make is to forgive the hurts.
In this way we move beyond the emotion and we deliberately choose to exercise the virtue of love. The way to do this is, with the eyes of faith, to recognise the spark of the divine in all those around us.