Christ's New Commandment of Love
(Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Apocalypse 21:1-5; John 13:31-35)
Introduction to Mass
When we talk about the Easter mystery we mean Jesus' passage from death to life in the obvious physical sense. But another aspect of the Easter mystery is that we are called to pass from death to life in a figurative and spiritual sense: to die to sin and self-centredness and rise to the new life of love, under the impact of God's grace.
The readings today are about this new life, so to prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of Christ's love we confess our sins and self-centredness and ask God to make us more open to his grace.
In the second reading Saint John talks, in mysterious and mystical language, I think it has to be said, about the new existence which Christ has made possible. John has seen a vision of "a new heaven and a new earth" he says - an intuition or mystical insight about the whole relationship between God and humanity living in a new communion with each other.
Then in the gospel Christ gives his disciples a "new commandment", as he calls it. He tells us what lies at the heart of this renewed relationship with God: "just as I have loved you," he says, "you also must love one another". The standard and pattern of Jesus' life is to be the standard and pattern of his disciples' lives as well.
Love is one of the great preoccupations of our modern culture. Personal relationships, and the warmth and security they provide, are a refuge from an outside world which is in many aspects uncaring and devoid of love. There's a hint of desperation in the efforts of some people to avoid being left "on their own", which suggests to me that there's an element in our culture which generates loneliness or fails to meet the human need for companionship and communication with each other in depth.
But having said all that, the way the Christian gospel understands love, and the way that our society in general understands it, are often two different things. Itís right to make connections, wherever we can, between our Christian outlook and the outlook of non-believers, but it's important for us to be clear about the distinctions as well.
One basic distinction, I think, is that along with Christ, and along with all the authors of the Bible, we see God as being the original source of love. "God is love," Saint John says elsewhere, "and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him".
Love isn't something we create out of the resources of our own human nature. Human nature can be pretty brutal and unloving. The news is always full of stories that show the depths of loveless behaviour that human beings are capable of sinking to. For us, as believers, love is the spark of divine life in each of us that permeates our whole character and personality and our behaviour more and more deeply, to the extent that we're open to God and get to know God more and more thoroughly.
To become less self-centred, and to direct ourselves more towards other people and their concerns, is really the main sign of genuine conversion, in our Christian understanding. The main impact God has on us, and the main way that he draws us into his own life, is by way of this conversion. And the person who is genuinely trying to seek God and to be open to God's influence in his or her life recognises this. We become aware that it's not us who live, it's God who is living in us.
The second big difference between Christ's notion of love, and the way our culture understands it, is that for Christ it's mainly a matter of will, not a matter of feelings or emotions. Christian love is more to do with a kind of reverence for others as fellow sons and daughters of God and a practical dedication to their welfare as spiritual beings. The ethos of Christian community life takes shape when every individual takes this attitude to everyone else: when each serves the others.
But this takes place in our wills, not in our feelings. Christian love doesn't mean getting deeply emotionally involved with everyone that we meet. That's not humanly possible. It's not what Christ did himself and it's not what he asks us to do.
One of my duties in the past was to be a hospital chaplain for a couple of years - and of course that's a role in which you often meet people in a state of anxiety or considerable distress. Many people die in hospital, and apart from seeing the individuals themselves when they're very close to passing away, a chaplain meets the family, and might even be conducting the deceased person's funeral.
Finding myself in that role, I think I drew the conclusion fairly quickly that the effort we make to show concern and to give comfort to people when they're vulnerable is certainly a way of showing genuine Christian love - but I don't think it's necessary to link up our own personal emotions with people's anxiety or their grief. We can identify with people when they've suffered a loss, but that's not the same as actually feeling the loss ourselves.
When people are distressed it's far more helpful to express sympathy in a down-to-earth way. They don't need to be bombarded with a lot of gushy nonsense about how we're totally devastated and won't be able to sleep and how we'll be worrying about them all week. The main fault of that is that it's really a form of self-indulgence. It's not actually directed to the welfare of the other person at all. And as Christians we're supposed to root out self-indulgent tendencies, not cultivate them.
So if that's not what Christ's new commandment is about, let me finish by suggesting two simple ways that we can carry out this instruction that Jesus gives us in the gospel today.
The first way is to surrender some of our own demands and ambitions about what we want out of life, and attend more to serving other people - not in grand gestures of self-sacrifice, but in small and manageable ways instead. Maybe being more generous to people with our time and attention.
When we do that, all our small actions build up into a habit, and we begin to assume the overall pattern of love and service that Christ puts to his followers as the way of living in communion with God.
And the other important thing we can do, as an act of Christian love, is: we can pray for people. God wants us to turn to him with our own needs and with other people's needs, because he wants us to communicate with him constantly about the plans and activities that we're involved in.
If we get into the habit of praying for other people - asking God in ordinary language to make himself present in their lives and help them in whatever way they need - then he also makes himself more present to us, and changes us, at the same time. He makes us gradually more detached from our own wants and desires, he changes our priorities and our sense of what's important, and he reinforces this whole attitude of concern and service to others.
So, alongside trying to be of practical assistance to people, we should never forget to pray for them as well. That might even prove more beneficial in the long run, not only for them, but for ourselves as well.
These are the sort of guidelines I'd take from the readings today, especially from the gospel reading and this appeal by Jesus to put the quality and the principle of love at the centre of our lives and the centre of our vocation as his disciples.