The experience of doing something that does not reflect our usual behavior that is not “who we are” is disconcerting. Usually, it is also unwanted because we have done something worse than usual. Less common, at least for me, is doing something uncharacteristically good and noble showing unconditioned love. St John looks at how this occurs, what it reveals, and how we can build on it in today’s passage and it is wonderful that we read it on Mother’s Day.
It is a common observation that a mother’s love is the closest human approximation of God’s unconditioned love. It is not of course universal nor consistent, but I have seen a mother through herself in front of a car to protect her child and many who did not abandon intolerable children. This kind of caring has been analyzed by philosophers, psychologists and scientists for generations and has generated an immense literature. I took a course on the “philosophy of love” in college, and we examined innumerable theories, most of which missed the mark.
Then as now I think the Holy Spirit, as St John will show us today, is the best answer.
He begins this week’s passage with “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. He does not say, you will know your catechism or think spiritual thoughts about me but that, but you will recognize that there are non-negotiable behaviors that are part of being a disciple.
We continue reading Jesus’ farewell to the apostles at the last supper. He began by washing the feet of his disciples. This was the most demeaning act in the NT other than the crucifixion itself. Feet were dirty and someone who cleaned another’s feet was clearly subservient. Even a Jewish slave was not required to do this. This was immensely symbolic and Peter, understanding Jesus’ strategy at first resisted: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (Jn 13:14–15). He will then tell them that “I give a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (Jn 13:34).
Jesus says however to obey the commandments not just commandment. He means the 10 commandments of course but also the great moral teachings of the Jews and to do so with a pure heart. I presume that they, like me, tried and mostly failed. He therefore tells them that he will ask the Father to send “another Advocate to be with you always” Advocate is a somewhat inadequate translation of Paraclete with means “called alongside of”. It is a legal term reflecting the Roman custom that allowed a person of high status to stand with a less privileged person to show his support and testify to the accused person’s honor and innocence. Jesus was the first paraclete – our first Supporter/Advocate. The apostles experienced being better than they thought themselves to be when Jesus was with them. Jesus now assures them that they will experience and do the same with the Spirit. The spirit will be the way that Jesus will be present to them. He will not be experienced by those who are not connected to Jesus, and we are connected to him by obeying his commandments that show the unconditioned love that he did by washing the feet of the disciples. When we love as he does, we will know that he is with the Father “and that You are in me and I in you”.
We also experience Jesus himself. “And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him”
When we think about Jesus revealing himself it is natural to think about mystics. This is true and there are many more people who have enjoyed mystical experiences than we might imagine but Jesus is most present to lovers.
Jesus reveals himself to us whenever we love and when we love we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit – our biggest supporter – who moves us to dare to love more. John proclaims that Jesus’ spirit remains with us though the church tto guide, comfort, and support us. To be the home of Jesus the church must be the school of love. This requires education in every form: teaching the doctrines, celebrating the sacraments but most importantly serving each other as Jesus taught and lived.
We must help each other by surprising ourselves with how well we can love. This is through close relationships and the best place to begin is our own families. The family is well seen as the “domestic Church”, the most valuable building block for a good life. Now we are back to mothers again with a detour.
At my Ordination retreat a beloved older priest told us that the expectations for priests were unreasonably high. For social as well as theological reasons people expected priests not to ever have an off day nor a day off, to be kind, generous, loving and learned 24/7, 365. This is of course impossible, but he suggested that we embrace it, seek to truly love as people want us to and accept the inevitable failures with good grace and better humor.
Being as shy then as I am now, I opined that in that case, people should call us mother not father, showing once again that “many a true word is said in jest”. Our expectations for our mothers are perhaps even more unrealistic and indeed impossible than those for priests. Yet I think that it is the truest sign of the presence of the holy spirit in the world that so many women stand with the spirit in their daily lives and love without question or seeming limit. Let us take this Mother’s Day to thank them for revealing to us the unconditioned love of the Father.