Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Novelty of Love

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Novelty is alluring. Well, that’s actually an understatement. Novelty is addictive. We get excited quite easily over new things and most new things catch our interest for a while. But it never lasts. Eventually, we end up getting bored of people, of activities, of ideas, of things and even of religion. The new always promises to surpass the old - and let’s face it, there is always a thrill when we get that new smart phone, or tablet or those new clothes. Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward. With technology, novelty is the reward. You essentially become addicted to novelty. But the new quickly becomes old, and so novelty creates an inexhaustible desire. We can’t stop because the brain has no built-in braking system.  Our love of novelty can even take on the appearance of a search for truth, when in fact it is only a form of distraction.

Today we live in a modern Areopagus, that ancient court in Athens which had become a marketplace of religious products during the time of St Paul’s visit. The Acts of the Apostles provides us with the following social commentary of the Athenians of the first century: "all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). The city was "full of idols" - each new god, each new philosophy added to the last, so that the streets (not unlike our own) offered a plethora of religious products ready for consumption. If one god failed you, or just bored you, there was always another. Today we live in a global marketplace of ideas, philosophies, religious thought and spiritualities. The reason for this proliferation of spiritual ‘goods’ is the incessant demand by the masses for meaning, but more specifically, for novelty in meaning.

In today’s gospel, Jesus also promises a ‘novelty’ – “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” For many of us, the commandment of love has become so familiar to the point of being treated contemptuously. It’s almost impossible for us in this day and age to appreciate its ‘newness.’ What is so new about this commandment? Loving each other is not a new command per se. It was already there in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”). So, what is the novelty in today’s gospel passage? Pope Emeritus Benedict sheds light on the mystery: “This commandment has become new because Jesus makes a very important addition to it: “just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” What is new is precisely this “loving as Jesus loved.” All our living is preceded by his love and refers to this love, it fits into this love and is achieved precisely through this love. The Old Testament did not present any model of love; it only formulated the precept of love. Instead, Jesus gave himself to us as a model and source of love a boundless, universal love that could transform all negative circumstances and all obstacles into opportunities to progress in love.”

Thus the principal reason why the commandment is ‘new’ is, evidently, the standard by which one was to ‘love one another’: “as I have loved you.” The new commandment of the Johannine community does not mean the love command itself, but the criteria by which the community will judge that love. No longer does the believer love the neighbour as oneself. Love of self, perhaps the most important benchmark by which we humans judge many things, will need to step aside for something far greater. Self-love no longer becomes the criteria but Jesus’ love for us. Jesus sets himself as the new norm and measure of Christian love. He himself loved ‘to the end’. Therefore to love one another as he loved is to give oneself wholly and fully here and now to the other. So it is in this totality of self-sacrifice and self-giving that the new element in the commandment of love is to be found.

In his monumental treatise on the theological virtue of love, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Benedict XVI tells us that the Bible as a whole presents us with a new image of God that can only be understood from a perspective of love. According to him, the height of Greek Philosophy is also only able to grasp through human reflection the object of love, but in itself does not love. The Bible, on the other hand presents a profoundly different image of God. The one God in whom Israel believes loves with a personal love. Thus, the newness presented by the Biblical image of God is this – God loves man. But a greater novelty awaits us in the New Testament. The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to this concept. Already in the Old Testament, we do not only have abstract notions of God’s love but we discern it in his unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity in human history. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity.

When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross, in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him, is the culmination of God’s incomparable love. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of the profound theological statement: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.

Thus, love is never just a human choice or effort, where couples need to find new excitement and novelties to reignite the flame of their romance, or where we strive to move beyond ourselves to penetrate the cloud of mystery that veils our eyes from the Transcendent God. Love is ‘divine’ because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). In Christ, the Transcendent God has truly become Immanent. Through his descent, the divine love is now united to the human, and thus when we love in and through Christ, never apart from him, we would perform something totally new which we would never be able to accomplish on our own.

In the first letter of St. John, where he speaks so much of love and where he names God as Love, we find these beautiful words “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10) Our weak, limited, imperfect and inadequate ‘love’ for ourselves no longer becomes the standard by which we should love others but rather Jesus’ love for us. In contemplating love, we turn our attention away from ourselves or even from the object of our love, our neighbour. Rather, in contemplating love, we must always raise our eyes above to contemplate God. Only God loves perfectly because God is LOVE himself! And this is the love of God – that he is prepared to become man, suffer and die for us. This is the love of God, that he is prepared to become one of us, to share our pains and sorrows, to experience our sufferings and give us hope and encouragement in the midst of all these. This is the love of God – that he will “wipe away all tears from (our) eyes”, destroy death and sadness. This is the love of God – that he will make all things new. It is a novelty that we will never be tired off. It is a novelty that will never grow old. Because it is a novelty that does not just entertain or excite us but one which ultimately save us.

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