05 January 2009

The messy business of love

[It’s a miracle! A homily! Remember those. . .?]

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. I really like this homily. Great job! Could I quote from it on my blog?

  2. Just making sure that you do know this is me... right???


  3. Tom in NJ4:42 PM

    The Holy Father used Latin "caritas," the original uses "agape" and its cognates, rather than "amor" or "philia" or "eros." Can we conclude that "agape" (also used in St. Paul)means we can know we share in the Divine because the Divine became human?

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  5. Aspiring,

    One of the most spiritually schema for understanding our creation, life, death, and resurrection is Aquinas' exitus/reditus; that is, the our coming from God and returning to God. This way we come to understand our total dependence on Him for our very existence but at the same time we understand that our freedom is best used when we use it in the graced return to Him.

    This sounds like a good post idea!

  6. Tom,

    Excellent question...

    Essentially, you are correct. One thing to keep in mind though is that the various distinctions we make among eros, agape, philo, etc. are distinctions we make b/c they are useful for our limited understanding. These are not distinctions "in God" insofar as God is Love.

    The same can be said for the taxonomy we give to grace: antecedent, operative, sanctifying, etc. Aquinas teaches us that grace is simply God's invitation to us to live with Him in eternity. For God, grace is the on-going giving of Himself to us as gift in time. He's eternal, etc. but we're not, so we need to parse that invitation from eternity into temporal bits that make sense to us. So, we talk about grace as it effects us initially, subsequently, etc.

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  9. Aspring, no worries. I took it as a challenge not an insult.

  10. I love your homilies so, and this one is no exception. My life is messy. God still loves me.

    Thank you, as always.

  11. I'm just a mess.

    but you're awesome.

    when's your book coming out??

  12. Mom, we're shooting for spring of 2010. Pray, pray hard.