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Part I: Am we the embodiment of Love? This new pope is good, at least from what I've read of him thus far. I don't just mean it in the sense that he's a good man. I mean, he's good in the sense that he's impressed me. He has shown an awareness regarding the status of our world, and seems to have a good grasp of the chasm that separates many people from Jesus Christ and the Church. He doesn’t seem to take a holier-than-thou attitude, but rather, a down-to-earth attitude. In his new encyclical God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI essentially makes a call for love. And he stresses love’s importance:
Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical (p. 20, #39).
Reading that we're called to experience love is light and easy reading. And to me, relative to reading Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI's God is Love is just that: light and easy reading. At the same time, it isn’t easy, especially when you really begin to think about the invitation the Pope is really extending: "Despite being extended to all mankind, it [love] is not reduced to a generic, abstract, and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my [our] own practical commitment here and now (p. 8, #15)." The view of being practically committed to love is tough. What does that mean for me specifically? How am I supposed to express love? Yes, reading the words above is easy. But thinking about them below the surface even just a bit is not easy; turning those thoughts into introspective questions is not. While thinking about how to be committed to love is tough, the cover of the encyclical poses an even tougher concept to me: that God is Love. Again at the surface, we’ve heard this before and this seems simple. But again, below the surface, this concept causes all kinds of philosophical problems for me (and I'm no philosopher). The biggest of these concerns is thinking about the fact that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). If this is the case and God is Love, does this mean that we ourselves are created in the image of Love? If we're supposed to be Christ to others, does this mean we are supposed to be Love to others? The Pope reminds us in this encyclical about what Jesus taught us long ago:
We should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Mt 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life's worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find
God...If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20). But this text hardly excludes the love of God as impossible. On the contrary, the whole context of the passage quoted from the First Letter of John shows that such love is explicitly demanded. The unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbour is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether. Saint John's words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God (pp. 8-9, #1516).
It is so easy (though not necessarily enjoyable) to focus on our sins of commission. At times when we do so, as clear sinners, it is often difficult to picture ourselves as being created in the image of God. It is perhaps even more difficult to consider all the sins of omission we commit against our neighbors and therefore Jesus every day, in little ways. It is often difficult to picture those we hate or look down upon—those “we are closed to”-- as being created in the image of God. But in the spirit of “love your enemies,” the Pope says, "in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know (p. 10, #18)." And we are to do the same. We are to love the stranger, the prisoner. Put another way: we are to love Jesus. We are to remember that God doesn’t make mistakes. We are to smile at strangers on the street, clothe the homeless, and feed the hungry. We are to be Christ to others, to be Love to others. But unfortunately this isn’t always how it happens. The Pope says it well: “In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message ["of the gift of God's love with which God draws near to us"] is both timely and significant (“Introduction” section).” It is timely and significant indeed. And it is a message that needs to be heard by all: Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, Jews, Iraqis, and Americans. And as Christians, we need to be particularly careful that we follow the way of Love. Or equivalently stated, that we follow the way of God. The Pope recommends an easy starting point:
The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of "neighbour" was understood as referring essentially to one's countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of "neighbour" is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. (p. 8, #15).
The idea that those same Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, Jews, Iraqis, and Americans are my neighbors is challenging. And loving them is even more challenging. The alternatives are so much easier: going to war with them, mistreating them (in daily life, through the grapevine, or via the courts), or hating them in every conceivable way. But then, the Pope's point above (put so succinctly) was that if our neighbor is made in the image of God, and if how we treat our neighbor is actually how we treat Jesus, then maybe the two greatest commandments Jesus pointed to are really a single commandment: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your
soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).” Put another way, maybe in loving our neighbor (ie. Jesus) as ourself, we are actually loving God. But then if God is Love, are we to love Love? What can we learn from Scripture if we replace the word “God” for “Love?” Among other things, we get a pretty clear picture of who God is when we read 1 Corinthians 13 this way: God is patient, God is kind. He is not jealous, is not pompous, He is not inflated, He is not rude, He does not seek its own interests, He is not quick-tempered, He does not brood over injury, He does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never fails. How easy to love God when we think of Him this way! How easy to love Love itself! Not storybook love, but mature, true love as described when we replace the word “Love” in its proper places in the quote above. But then, this isn’t very new. After all, we inherently know this about God already. Perhaps again the simplicity that lies in those statements should be taken to the next level. That is, perhaps it should again be taken to a set of deeper questions, based on the concept that we are to be Christ to others. That is (again), that we are to be Love to others: Am I patient, am I kind? Am I jealous or pompous? Am I inflated or rude? Do I seek my own interests? Am I quick-tempered? Do I brood over injury? Do I rejoice over wrongdoing? Do I rejoice with the truth? Do I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things? When, how, and why do I fail? So I ask: as beings created in the image of God who are to be Christ to one another, do we embody Love?
All Bible quotes are from the New American Bible. All quotes from the Pope are from Pope Benedict XVI's God is Love. ©2006 Tom Reagan http://TomReagan.com
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