06 January 2010

Love harder and more faithfully

[Repost from one year ago today. . .I've been pecking away on an Epiphany homily since Friday, but it won't come.   The idea is either too big or too small for a homily. . .]

Christmas Week (T): 1 Jn 4:7-10; Mk 6:34-44
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

How casually do you use the word “love”? How quickly does it trip off your tongue when necessary, yet means almost nothing at all? Or, are you some kind of Christian freak who uses “love” to mean Love and in doing so, really mean it? In English, superlatives like “awesome,” “greatest,” “wonderful,” are quickly emptied of their strictest meaning by meaningless repetition. I listened to an American comedian over the weekend who riffed on the overuse of the word “awesome.” He noted that Americans will describe hot dogs as “awesome.” He asks, “What does the next astronaut do when he lands on Mars and receives a call from the President asking him to describe the Red Planet? ‘Mr. President, Mars is awesome!’ ‘You mean like a hot dog?’ ‘Um, well, yeah, but like a billion hot dogs!’” See the problem? When everything is awesome, nothing is awesome. If love can mean something as trivial as “I don’t hate you…much” or “this is my preference,” then love is emptied of its meaning. So, for Christians, what does Love mean?

In his first letter, John writes: “…everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” God is Love. Now, the first thing we must do is quickly move beyond any vacuous secular notion of love and settle firmly in the middle of the Christian tradition. Love is not a fluttering stomach, or a swooning head, or a surge of hormones. Those can be signs of love, but they are not Love Himself. If we are to know God, we must love. And we are capable of loving because God, who is Love, loved us first. Since God is the source and destination of our love, when we love we come to know Him. But if our love is to be anything but an abstraction, we must love each other; that is, our love must be for other people. This means we come to know each other in and through God as God knows each of us.

How is this possible? How is it possible that we, mere humans, can come to love another as God loves us and come to know Him and others all the while loving? In his 2005 encyclical, Deus caritas est, our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, writes: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”(1). We just celebrated the event: the Nativity of the Christ Child. We have just met the person—fully God, fully Man—Jesus Christ. In this event and this person, we have Love given flesh! To participate in this event, our baptism, and to meet this person, in the Eucharist, our lives as “mere” humans are transformed; we are given new life, a new horizon, a fresh ambition; we are given a decisive direction, set on an unsullied path, and gifted with every grace we need to arrive in His divine presence whole and secure. The Christ Child—human and divine—is Love in the flesh. Know him and know the One Who sent him: God.

This messy business of loving sinful men and women is no less messy because we must do so with and through Love Himself. But loving God and one another is one superlative that will not be emptied by overuse. Quite the opposite: “God sent his only-begotten Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” The longer and harder and more faithfully we love, the more we come to our perfection in this flesh and blood life of Christ.


  1. Your opening paragraph reminds me of an incident. It is the custom in my family to say "good bye" with "I love you." It's a natural habit now. IOW, without thinking we say "Good bye, I love you," much like "Have a nice day."
    One day at work, I received a telephone call that proved to be a wrong number. Without thinking, I closed the conversation with, "Good bye, I love you." I immediately realized my mistake, but before I could say any word of explanation, the caller responded, "I love you, too."
    We both laughed and that was the end.

  2. "When everything is awesome, nothing is awesome."

    This is reflected in the general wish to "dumb down" religion, to "dumb down" God so that he is on the same level as a "mate" or "pal". Yes, we may know we have a true friend in Jesus, to know we have the authority to approach God as his children, but I think there has to be also a sense and understanding of his majesty and we have to keep a sense of reverence when we approach.
    This seems to have been accompanied by an increase in "chatty", informal language being used within the church universal. I agree the language has to be understood by the majority, but there has to be a balance.
    We have to be able to convey to people how truly wonderful, what a privilege and how AMAZING it is that we can know the love of God when we are so completely unworthy. We have to see it as a "big thing" and bring back the awe and wonder. Never let the extraordinary become simply ordinary.

  3. Tom in NJ2:42 PM

    English-language "love" doesn't make for careful homilies. The Greeks brought us "eros", "philia" and "agape." The Vulgate brought the latter over as "caritas."

    This latter idea represents the power of Christian's God. It's different from the nature gods in Plato's pantheon. It's different from the understanding Moses had - and Moses and the prophets came to understand God's mercy.
    "See how those Christians love one another" was a radical concept in the first century and remains so today. Christians approach the divine through the Savior and show their love in how they treat each other and the wide world around them. It's always been time to work harder at this love.

  4. Father, for whatever it might be worth I've sent you an email. Hopefully it doesn't fall into the spam blackhole.