The Twofold Aspect of Love
Fifth Sunday of Easter. Acts 14:21b-27; Ps 145:8-13; Rv 21:1-5a; Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35
‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’ These may be among the most well-known of all words of Jesus Christ. They are also, literally, a new commandment. These words do not appear at all in the Old Testament, but are found at least 26 times, with slight variations, in the New Testament. For example, St. Paul writing to the Thessalonians says ‘you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another’ (1 Thes 4:9). St. Peter exhorts us to ‘have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’ St. John tells us that ‘we should believe in the name of … Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us’. (1 John 3:23).
This commandment of Jesus, and even more powerfully the example of Jesus, clearly impressed itself deeply on the minds of the first disciples, ‘As I have loved you, so you also should love one another’. Today, however, the word ‘love’ is frequently misused, making the power of Jesus’ words somewhat opaque and inaccessible to us. To try to understand them better it is worth returning to first principles and asking the basic question, ‘what is love?’
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, there are two key aspects of love – and it is necessary to have both of them for love to be genuine. The first aspect is to desire the good of the other person; the second aspect is to desire to be with or be united with the other person. If one desires to be with the other person, but does not desire what is good for them, then this is not love. Similarly and more subtly, if one desires what is good for the other person, but not to be with them, then this is not love either. It is possible to have a ‘cold benevolence’, such that one can wish someone well but not want to have anything to do with them. Genuine love requires both the desire for the good of the other person and the desire for union with the other person.
But what is it to desire what is good for another person? The greatest good that anyone can desire for anyone else is that they enter the kingdom of God, described in today’s second reading as the ‘New Jerusalem’. Here God ‘will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain’; Here God makes ‘all things new’. This is the greatest good that anyone could wish another person to have, and any genuine love should help someone towards this goal – or at least be compatible with this goal of salvation.
So the deepest Christian answer to the question, ‘what is love?’, can also be stated as follows. Love is a desire that the other person reaches the Kingdom of Heaven, and a desire to be with them there in the company of the Most Holy Trinity, the angels and the saints. Now on a daily level we are not always explicitly thinking about love in these exalted terms, but our heavenly destiny should colour and influence all our relationships with others. When my father and mother were engaged to be married in the mid 1960s, my mother tells me that my father asked her, ‘Is my soul safe in your hands?’ They were young and in love, but their love was still grounded and influenced by an eternal perspective. They foresaw that marriage would be one of their means, hopefully, to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. In many other daily actions, our love for others can also have this supernatural perspective. Teachers have a special responsibility here, because we depend principally for our knowledge of God through teaching. Good teaching and good example can open the gates of heaven to a soul; evil teaching and bad example can lead even a sincere soul into a terrible state.
So if we really want to love others, we should consider our deeds in this supernatural perspective. If we think that we love someone, the test should be this: are our actions really helping that person to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, and do we want to be there with them?
Finally, as the first reading warns, to reach heaven is not easy, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Love in its deepest form may present us with the question, what I am prepared to sacrifice for the salvation of another? The answer Jesus gives is shown by the crucifix above our altar.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 6th May 2007
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.