And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
So many times – too many times – people think that Christianity is all about rules. I’m a member of the Catholic Church (Roman Rite) so I hear the rules criticism all the time in the Media. Gratefully, I understand that Christianity is not about rules. Christianity is about love. Now, I don’t in any way mean that the Commandments should be thrown out – quite the contrary. The 10 Commandments given to Moses by God should be embraced – should be loved. The essence of what God is asking us to do is to be who God created us to be: persons of love. First and foremost we must embrace the truth that God is love. And we, being created in the image and likeness of God, are images and likenesses of love.
That’s a whole lot of use of the word love in one paragraph… But… what is love?
Love is the gift of self.
Before the universe existed, God IS. God is Being Itself and generously gives this beingness to what He creates, to what is not strictly God Godself – to what is other than God. This generous giving of self to the other is true gift. And God created “man in His own image; male and female He created them.”[i] God is One, there is only one God, and, in our limited human understanding, we Christians believe in one God in three Divine Persons. The Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has been described as Lover (loving), Beloved (loved), and Love (the communion between and within lover and beloved). As human persons we are given, by God, not only the ability to love as God loves, giving and receiving, but also the very identity of love itself. Pope John Paul II said, “a person is an entity of a sort to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love.”[ii]
In the book of Genesis we hear God say, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are made for loving relationship. Among all the creatures of God, it is only in our fellow human beings, our fellow Divine images, that we can experience true loving communion – and therefore be truly and wholly ourselves. No other created being “offers man the basic conditions that make it possible to exist in a relation of reciprocal gift.”[iii] God is love and we are created to be love – and this means that a “person” should never be treated as a means, a way or a tool used to get something else. If we want to know the truth, then we need to know that persons are gifts of love and are fulfilled only when giving and receiving love, in loving communion with God and with one another.
Sometimes we use the word love in a different kind of way – for things, namely. I can say, “I love God, I love my parents, I love beauty, I love ice cream” and mean “love” a little differently each time. When Christ sums up the 10 commandments and reiterates the divine commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, he is not speaking of the kind of love in which “we draw to ourselves what is outside of us when by that very love we love things other than ourselves inasmuch as they are useful or delightful to us.”[iv] Rather, we are being told to love with all our hearts, souls, strength, minds, in a divine way in which “we draw ourselves to what is outside. For, to those whom we love in that love we are related to as ourselves, communicating ourselves to them in some way.”[v] So, when I love my neighbor as myself, it is not with the kind of self-love in which I find myself exclusively delightful and seek to please myself – that would be a disordered kind of self-love. Rather, when I love my neighbor as myself, it is with the kind of love – true love – that is of my very being, that is who I am, being created by Love. Christ Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”[vi] To truly love ourselves, we must remember that God first loved us. Anytime we want to know who we are created to be, we should look to Jesus Christ, who is fully divine and fully human. And when we look to Christ, we see true love – for he gives of himself completely – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – giving of himself to us. That’s how we are to love.
When I was younger, I heard of Christian love as sacrificial love. These days, oddly and sadly, “sacrificial” has taken on some negative connotations, as though we’ve lost the spirit of generosity. I believe that’s because we’ve lost the sense of who we are – not our own, but God’s own. This means that we also have taken for granted the gift of life. And by doing this, we also take for granted the self-gift that is true love. We love because God first loved us. To freely and gratefully accept this gift is our first act of love – and we truly accept this gift by loving the Giver. Not “delighting in” the pleasure of being alive, per se, but by realizing who we are: gifts of divine love. We realize this by being gifts – by giving. This true self-awareness is the true and good and right kind of self-love. It is how we are able to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is how we are able to love God with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds. The giving of ourselves as a gift to the other is also the very “acceptance of the other as a gift. These two functions of the mutual exchange are deeply connected in the whole process of the “gift of self”: giving and accepting the gift interpenetrate in such a way that the very act of giving becomes acceptance, and acceptance transforms itself into giving.”[vii]
And we don’t give in order to be thanked. We don’t give in order to get some thing in return, some pleasure or other kind of self-centered prize. (Although God is good and He has made us so that we may be able to experience true and deep joy when giving and receiving true love.) And we don’t give because the rules say so! We don’t give as a kind of blind obedience in order to satisfy the letter of the law. For we cannot be “blind” if we are loving with our whole heart, with our whole souls, with all of our strength, and with all of our minds. We are, rather, loving with the entirety of ourselves – because we are giving ourselves entirely. And the reason that we freely give is because we are free gifts. The 10 commandments are examples of how we are to love. It is only if we have no real love, if we merely use others instead of seeing ourselves and others as pure gifts, that we would seek to kill, or lie, or steal, or cheat, or covet, or betray. The 10 commandments serve as guideposts to help us discern whether or not we are being who we were created to be.
It’s all about true love.
[i] Genesis 1:27
[ii] Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. Translated by H. T. Willetts. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981, p. 41
[iii] Wojtyla, Karol. Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body. Translated by Michael Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006, audience 14:1
[iv] Aquinas, Thomas. Lectures on John, Chapter 15, Lecture 4, Marietta #2036 from Waldstein, p. 129.
[vi] John 15:12
[vii] Wojtyla, Karol. Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body. Translated by Michael Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006, audience 17:4