"Love one another as I have loved you"
Sixth Sunday of Easter (Easter6B), May 17, 2009
By Fr. Alex McAllister
‘This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.’ This is the central text of today’s Gospel reading and indeed one could consider it one of the most fundamental texts of the Christian faith.
And yet it seems at first sight to contain a basic contradiction. How can one be commanded to love? We are all well aware that genuine love, real authentic love, must by definition be an entirely free choice. So how can Jesus ‘command’ us to express love one for another?
We tend to experience commands or laws or obligations as oppressive and as limiting to our freedom and personal autonomy. We think of rulers as overlords who wish to impose their will on us and we are instinctively reluctant to comply with external rules foisted on us in this way.
What we are dealing with here though is not the command of some dictator or oppressor but the command of God. This is the command of the only one who has our best interests at heart, the unique being who is more interested in us than we are in ourselves. It is the command of our creator, sustainer and redeemer and his command to love is entirely in our best interests.
It might seem quite elementary but it is worth just mentioning our need for rules and commands even if they are imposed from above. We often need them for the good ordering of society.
Driving on the left is perhaps the most obvious example. Some countries drive on the right, some on the left; which side of the road doesn’t really matter as long as in a particular country it is either one or the other and everyone knows and complies with the rule.
This rule prohibits us from driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road but this does not restrict our freedom, rather it enhances our ability to drive safely from A to B. If anarchy reigned on our roads then driving would be impossible and we would consequently experience a loss of freedom.
So some commands handed down from above are good and perhaps even necessary for a fulfilling life. Even so this command to love is above all these other rules and conventions because it is concerned with helping us to conform to our true nature.
Understanding this is very important when it comes to the moral life. We are made in the image and likeness of God and becoming virtuous is about learning to express our true nature.
I’ve been reading an excellent book by the Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe called ‘What’s the Point of Being a Christian?’ In it he makes this very point.
He explains, in accordance with the insights of St Thomas Aquinas, that freedom is not about having a lot of choices, it is not about being able to pick and choose depending on our whims.
No, it is about doing what is good because that is what we most deeply desire.
Real freedom involves not making random choices but acting authentically from the very core of one’s being—where God is. It is in doing that which is best for us, doing only that which is in accordance with our true nature and our highest destiny.
In order to become the kind of person that does this instinctively we need to train ourselves to act virtuously—to do the right thing in an utterly spontaneous way.
We need to replace all our bad habits with good habits. We need to assiduously acquire the virtues and develop them in our lives.
There are various lists of virtues but the seven classical virtues are: chastity, liberality, abstinence, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. In the Catholic Church we usually speak about the three Theological Virtues which are faith, hope and charity and the four Cardinal Virtues which are: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
The lists of virtues don’t really matter because everyone can recognise the difference between a virtue and a vice. A virtue of its very nature tends towards the good and a vice inevitably tends towards that which is evil.
What we need to do is to reflect on the deeper meaning of each of the virtues and make them a real part of our lives.
It is in acquiring and cultivating these attributes that we become a truly good person, a person of real character.
It is acquiring the virtues that we learn what true love is, that we overcome selfishness and infatuations and fleeting desires and so begin to act in an authentically free way.
The final result is that we will have learned to conform our will to that of God and come to realise that what he wants is actually also what we want. This is the way to achieve real fulfilment as a human person. This is, of course, also the way of holiness.
We can see this in the life of Jesus. To the outsider he was a complete failure: betrayed, arrested, convicted and judicially murdered. Of course, that could happen to anyone, innocent or guilty. But in the case of Jesus he deliberately let all those things happen to him. He freely chose to undergo the suffering and death on the Cross because it was the Father’s will. To the outsider that makes his case even worse.
But to the Christian this was obedience to the Father in its highest form but it was also an entirely free act. It was free because it was entirely characteristic of his true nature. It was his spontaneous response to the Father’s will. And this entirely good act brought about salvation for the whole world.
We rejoice in what Christ did for us, and we celebrate in this Mass the victory he won. In the deeply powerful symbolism of the Last Supper Jesus brought all this together in one sacred action, a sacred action which we repeat each day on this altar.
Through our celebration of the Eucharist we are united with Christ’s great act of sacrifice and draw strength from him and are enabled to become ever more conformed to the will of the Father. By this we, in our turn, become ever more free and ever more truly ourselves.
‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Yes, this certainly is a commandment but there is nothing at all negative about it since it is entirely in accordance with our true nature and inevitably leads us to our ultimate destiny which is only to be found in God.