Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Love is Free but it isn't Cheap

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

You may have heard of this story. The man was at Hallmarks looking at a birthday card for his wife. One card had these beautiful words:
My love for you knows no bounds.
I would climb any mountain, pay any price, make any sacrifice
To show you the extent of my love. 
The man went to the sales clerk and said, “I love the message of this card, but do you have anything cheaper?”

I’m sure his wife and all the women in the room would agree, “Talk is cheap. Real love is costly,” and then add “Where’s my diamond ring?” The world is full of bargain hunters like this man. Among these are ever so many who hope to get something for nothing. But more often than not they get disappointed. This applies not only to material things but also to relationships. Just look at the underlying sentiment of a majority of modern-day love songs, what they say is that love is both pleasurable and free. Anyone remembers JLo’s chart topping hit in 2000, “Love doesn’t cost a thing”? Despite its falsity, modern culture doesn’t seem to let up on this mantra. Our culture worships at the altar of sexuality and the promise that doing what feels good will lead to fulfillment. Unfortunately, this is not true, and there is a wake of people with the costly wounds and scars on their souls to prove it. And so the search goes on and perhaps the goal would continue to be elusive unless one comes to accept that authentic love can only come at a great cost to our own comfort, convenience, and reputation.

But to say that love is free is not entirely false. Love is always free. It’s undeserved, unmerited and unconditional. But yet again, the paradox of love is that it comes at a heavy cost. True love demands sacrifice. Someone else has to pay for it. Yes, love involves great sacrifice. The great paradox of love is that though it may cost us nothing; it costs God everything. The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminds us that though God’s love is a free gift, it does not come cheap. It comes at the cost of God’s Son. “Nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.” The cost of our love has been paid by God. God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental, romantic feeling nor some warm fuzzy words that you would find in a Hallmark card. Rather, it is the love of self-sacrifice. He demonstrates this sacrificial love by sending His Son to the cross. “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” The cross is proof of the extent of God’s love.

“Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.”There is no doubt that this is a definitive statement about the extent of God’s love. But it also speaks to us of the true value and worth of our lives which we often discount.

Each one of us has a deep longing to be truly loved. But, in our desperation to be loved, we make compromises. To make ourselves appear loveable, we are quick to trade in authenticity for approval, and to sacrifice integrity for acceptance. In this bid for the approval of others, we fabricate for ourselves a façade to cover our hidden vices and dark addictions. We neatly present our lives in our carefully-curated social media posts, hoping to elicit affirmation, likes, more likes, and certainly love. We are narcissist who leach off the approval of others. But the truth is that Facebook likes can never be the measure of how much we are loved. It is entirely self-defeating and tenuous to feed our sense of self-worth through the borrowed compliments of others. One day, this façade will fall like a house of cards blown by a gentle breeze.

So we find ourselves alone - for no one knows us as we truly are; only as we have made ourselves to be. We find ourselves like scared children lost in a shadowy world of our making - a world of pretences and edifices. We long to be truly loved, and we long to be truly known. But we are constantly disappointed, constantly dissatisfied, because this is a longing that no finite, fickle and fading human love can satisfy. Yet there is one who looks into the depths of our hearts, who knows us intimately. And, keeping His gaze there, He says, “I love you.” This one is Jesus Christ. And His talk is not cheap. He had paid the heavy price of it on the cross.

He searches the deepest depths of us, our flickering virtue and devastating vices, our moments of triumph and our crushing insecurities - and He loves us. His gaze pierces through the façade of our imposter, sees us as how we truly are - and He accepts us. Through Him, we are truly loved. As St Paul tells us in the second reading with so much conviction, “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy, when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ…” And we know that we didn’t do anything, in fact we are incapable of doing anything to earn this love. St Paul assures us that this is an absolute “gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.” In this love, we are totally secure. Our identity is defined as children beloved by the eternal Father. No more striving. No more faking it. No more putting up a smokescreen just to appear loveable. God sees through it all, and in His Son, still loves us entirely and unreservedly.

This is the good news we rejoice over today. There's no such thing as a person God no longer wants. There are only people who haven't accepted His love. This is it: We are saved by God because He loves us. We are saved not because we deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we are sinners. St Paul in his letter to the Romans (5:8) teaches, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We are saved not because we have earned it. Love and salvation can never be earned. This is the extent of the love of God – that He saved us despite our sins and not because we were good. God came not to condemn us but to save us.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13). The Eucharistic sacrifice we offer at the altar is the same sacrifice of Christ, who lovingly laid down His life on the Cross for us. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us. God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him,” (1 John 4:9). We are shaped by God, and this divine love is life-giving, joyful, and transformative. This is the Christian image of God.

True love is sacrificial, costly, a love that no flawed human being can provide. God sent His Son to die on a cross as a substitution, to take the weight that we could not bear, to forgive us our wrongdoings and to bear upon His own shoulders our brokenness. Because of this precious, eternal sacrifice, God looks on us as He looks on His Son. We are given a place at His table, as beloved children - not because of what we’ve done but because of what the Son did.
The nail-scarred hands of God reach down to us; His nail-scarred feet run after us in love.
He alone sees through the imposter, sees the brokenness hidden behind the façade, and still loves us. He has done what we cannot do - that much is assured. He has paid the price, but we must acknowledge Him as our Saviour - as the only way to true love.
He confronts us with one burning question:
“Do you love me?”

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