Sunday, May 17, 2009

Easter 6

St. Thomas Aquinas,
at the end of his lengthy commentary on John’s Gospel,
recounts the medieval legend that “as an old man
John was carried to the church by his followers
to teach the faithful.
He taught only one thing:
‘Little children, love one another.’”
Then Thomas adds,
“This is the perfection of the Christian life” (§2653).

This is a legend and not from scripture,
but it rings true with our second reading and Gospel for today,
both of which are traditionally ascribed to St. John
and both of which place love at the center of their message.
From the first letter of John:
“let us love one another, because love is of God.”
From our Gospel:
“This I command you: love one another.”
This is the perfection of the Christian life:
to know the one, true and living God.
And we come to know God by loving because God is love,
and when we love, we know God, as it were, from the inside.

This sounds like pretty good news.
Love: this is the commandment of Christ to his disciples.
Disciples who love will “bear fruit that will remain.”
What could be more simple than that?
As St. Augustine said,
“Love, and do what you will” (Homilies on 1 John 7.8).

But anyone who loves knows
that love is really not simple at all.
Our feelings about people and things
can be complex and conflicted.
Our love finds itself entangled
with a host of emotions and passions,
not excluding anger, jealousy, lust and pride,
which makes it difficult for us to separate what is love
from what might be something else, some darker impulse,
that has attached itself to our love, or masquerades as love.
People bind themselves to others in the name of love,
but they also break those bonds in the name of love.
People die in the name of love,
but they also kill in the name of love.
St. Augustine’s injunction, “love, and do what you will,”
can be twisted so that any action on our part can be justified
so long as we do it in the name of love.

This has been on my mind recently
particularly in light of the highly-publicized murder
of Stephanie Parente, a student at Loyola College, where I teach.
Stephanie, along with her mother and sister,
was killed by her father,
who then took his own life.
I did not know Stephanie personally,
but the impact of her murder on her friends,
many of whom are my students,
and the particular nature of this crime,
a father murdering his family,
has caused me to reflect on this event
more than I might on the typical human tragedy
that confronts me in my morning paper.

I don’t think anyone yet knows what role, if any,
mental illness might have played in this tragedy,
and how this might affect our understanding of this man’s actions.
But what has haunted me
is that this man who killed his wife and children
appears from all reports to have loved them.
What haunts me more is that he quite possibly thought
that he was taking their lives because he loved them —
that he was somehow protecting them,
or ensuring that he could have them with him even in death.
Could it be that he used love as the justification for his actions?

“Love, and do what you will?”
In this case, surely not.
This man may have loved his family;
that is not my place to judge.
But this was not an act that was born out of love
but out of some darker passion that hid behind the mask of love.
Surely there are actions that are simply incompatible with love,
and yet our human love can become so twisted by sin
that we attempt to justify these actions in the name of love.
This is an extreme example,
but the shadow of sin falls across us all
and if I am honest with myself I find that I my love too
is not immune from the darker impulses of the human species.

But thanks be to God that all this talk about love
that we hear in today’s readings
is not first and foremost about our human love at all.
Our second reading says: “this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”
This phrase “expiation for our sins”
is perhaps somewhat ominous and technical sounding,
but what it means is that God has sent us Jesus
to redeem the failures of our love.
We are to love one another
not according to the pattern of our fallen human love —
a love that has become entwined with other, darker passions —
but with the pure love that Christ showed on the cross,
the love that lays down its life so as to give new life.
This is the pattern of true love in which we are to abide
and the good news of Jesus Christ
is that God gives it to us as a gift
because God is love.
It is not something that we achieve,
but something that God achieves in us.
Through the free gift of God’s love,
our human love can, over the course of a lifetime,
begin to be untwisted,
disentangled from those dark passions that hide within it;
it can be remade according to the pattern of Christ’s love.
In the waters of baptism, love can be purified,
because we are immersed in God’s own love.
At the table of the Eucharist, true love can be nourished in us,
because the love of God becomes our food and drink.
This is the gift of love in which we are to abide.
This is the love that Christ commands.
This is the perfection of the Christian life.