Sunday, May 10, 2015

"God is love" and some implications

Reading: Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

Our second reading for this Sixth Sunday of Easter, at least to my mind, is perhaps the best scriptural proof of the Blessed Trinity. In this passage we are told, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). This phrase is repeated again eight verses later (1 John 4:16). Lest it become narcissism, love, at a minimum, requires a lover and a beloved. But love that is really love is profuse, that is, not closed in on itself. Therefore, the result of genuine love between two persons is a third person. In Roman Catholic theology, the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son personified, which is why we confess the Spirit's double procession - "who proceeds from the Father and the Son." It is on this basis that the family (father, mother, and child) is seen as one of the best icons of the Most Holy Trinity.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta appraised by Dante and Virgil, by Ary Scheffer, 1835

In what is probably the most famous vignette from the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Inferno (Canto V, lines 74-141, to be exact), Dante, guided by the great Latin poet Virgil, while in the Second Circle of hell where the lustful are punished, encounters the lovers Paolo and Francesca.

In life Francesca was married to Paolo's older brother Giancotto, who was physically deformed. After finding them, most likely in flagrante delicto, Giancotto killed them both. According to Dante, it was because of their burning lust for one another that they were condemned to be alone together forever. In three brief stanzas, consisting of a mere eight lines (lines 100-107), Dante brilliantly places on the lips of Francesca a description of what condemned them to walk exclusively together forever
Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this one for the beauty of my body,
torn from me. (How it happened still offends me!)

Love, that excuses no one loved from loving,
seized me so strongly with delight in him
that, as you see, he never leaves my side.

Love led us straight to sudden death together.
Caïna awaits the one who quenched our lives (Caïna, a lower part of hell, awaits Paolo's brother, Giancotto, for murdering them- translation by Mark Musa from The Portable Dante, pg 30)
Such an obsessive and closed in relationship is not love, or even really a pale imitation of authentic, self-giving, sacrificial love. Since I quoted from Von Balthasar in my previous post (see "Dante: finite love as a passage to the infinite") to the effect, "Why should a Christian man not love a woman for all eternity and allow himself to be introduced by that woman to a full understanding of what 'eternity' means?", I must clarify what distinguishes love from lust. Put most simply, what differentiates love and lust is the same thing that distinguishes selflessness from selfishness.

Jesus, in today's Gospel, tells us that to love Him is to keep His commandments. First among His commandments is that we love each other as He loves us. He loved us by laying down His life for us. It was the power of love that also brought about His Glorious Resurrection. We love each other as He loves us primarily by sacrificing for the good of each other, laying own interests aside. Genuine, authentic love is never a quid pro quo. Rather, it is complete and utter giving of oneself expecting nothing in return.

Crucifixion, by Anthony van Dyck, ca. 1622

Here's the really challenging and counter-intuitive part: only by loving after the manner of Jesus will your joy ever be complete. To experience complete joy is the very reason for which you were created and redeemed. Experiencing Christ's love first-hand and, in turn, loving selflessly is how you are sanctified, made holy, conformed to the image of Christ.

You're on the right track if you're thinking, "This is hard, maybe even impossible for me." Keep in mind what Jesus told His His disciples as they contemplated the prospect of a camel passing through the eye of a needle: "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God" (Mark 10:27). Also, remember what we heard Jesus say to us last Sunday: "without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5b).

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