Christians have heard “that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16) so often that we have put it on banners and flashed them at TV cameras. It is a radical and profound statement now thoroughly domesticated. A sign that we have made a good Holy Week is if it gets back its bite.
First, what is love? The standard Catholic definition of love is “to consistently will and choose the good of the other”. Sounds a bit dry, until I ask how important love is for me? When I make decisions do I ask if this is the loving thing to do? Do I first seek the good of the other or do I most desire my own personal gratification.? If I chose primarily for my own advancement will this make me happy? A recent book has suggested that young people are not enjoying sex as much as previous generations because it has become a transaction. Indeed, a confrontation with each side seeking the best deal. The author’s suggestion is that people first ask if they are willing the good of the other before engaging in sexual activity. She understands that there will be considerably less sex but assures her readers it will be more satisfactory. (Rethinking Sex: A Provocation by Christine Emba, 2022)
This has a cosmic dimension. Another thing we say without perhaps adequate reflection is that God created the world. Most ancient religions found this absurd, and they have reason on their side. The evil in the world is always so great and so resistant to change that they could not conceive a god who was both all-powerful and all loving. Their deities were either underpowered or cruel. Yet the Hebrews stubbornly believed that the LORD was both all-powerful and all merciful and created them not to torment, but to love them. He truly chose to make them for their own good.
Nor did he abandon them. Though even his chosen people were a disappointment from the start, LORD sent them prophets, lawgivers, kings, and sages, but they never stayed away from evil for long. Did love fail? Did this prove the nations right and the LORD wrong?
We celebrate today that our evil is no match for God’s goodness. The last word is not the cross, but the empty tomb. The religious and civil establishments used material and social force and power to destroy Jesus’ body and all memory of him. It did not seem to be particularly difficult with the son of a carpenter. And yet his body was not exterminated, it was resurrected, and his movement not strangled at birth but found within a generation throughout the world and this not despite being based on something as seemingly weak as love but because of it
God created the universe in his image. The basic reality of life is that only in willing the good of the other are we in harmony with the universe. The War in Ukraine, from the mass slaughter to bald faced lying and the treatment of the inconvenient in our society from the unborn to the homeless is the music of the universe badly played.
This can come from not knowing enough or knowing too much of nothing. We are so inundated by factoids that it is hard to know what is true and important. One of the great joys of the priesthood is to cause people problems. To make them stop and think. Sometimes in conversation, or confession or marriage prep a seed of doubt about the generally received truisms of our time can be planted and grow into a mighty oak of discontent. So big that it can only be addressed directly. It will not be solved by profound thought but by loving action. We are made in the image and likeness of God and are in closest harmony with him when we are loving others.
But that willing of the good must not be tepid or stingy, which alas often characterizes what we call love.
Jesus’s love is wild and crazy. He is God, the source of all being, our creator. We can offer him nothing and he owes us nothing. Yet as we read last week from St. Paul: “though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped”(Philippians 2:6) . This is amazing enough, but he further became a slave for us and offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross. This death is not only excruciatingly painful but causes social extermination. Truly, we call this “The” passion and we read it twice last week just to get the point. How passionate is our love not only for Him but for each other? Moderation is usually a virtue, but Jesus showed none in loving us; can we be like Him if we hold back with each other?
Also, Jesus has no taste – He loves everyone. His love is showered on the good and the bad alike. This is the point of many of his parables and why they are often distorted to blunt the message. He loves Putin who seems to be courting damnation as much as any of us and grieves for him as well as for the Ukrainians. The great Jewish rabbis understood this centuries ago when they envisioned the Lord crying at the death of the Egyptian soldiers who were drowned in the red sea. They too are his children. Every barrier we put up between ourselves and others, however sensible and well-meaning, is one put up between ourselves and God as well.
When we love like this, we will experience joy. A sad fact of life is that we rarely do. We are offered joy and bliss, but usually settle for comfort. Yet, the tomb is empty. Jesus has risen, and the more unrestrained our love for our neighbor here, the more we will experience unbounded joy now.