This morning’s Gospel reading is John 13:31–33a, 34–35:
When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What does it mean to “love one another,” especially in a fallen world? Jesus offers this as His commandment many times in his preaching, both implicitly and explicitly. In today’s Gospel, it carries the weight of His vanishing time in the flesh on Earth. Shortly after this, Judas would betray Jesus, the Passion would begin, and Jesus would suffer His death on the cross on behalf of us all.
To die for another is certainly one form of loving others, as Jesus taught. The martyrs that followed also teach that lesson. In fact, it was the common aspiration among early Christians to suffer martyrdom on behalf of Christ and others as a sign of that caritas love — so much so that the early Church had to create a discernment to make sure only those chosen by Christ for that mission would pursue it. Later, when the persecutions in the Roman empire eased and Christianity became embraced, other forms of “martyrdom” arose, such as hermits who later grouped together in monasteries, a type of death to the world in service of Christ and others. Indeed, most if not all of these monasteries performed vital works for communities as part of their mission while they lived in poverty and privation.
And of course, even today we have monasteries and convents, but we have any number of other ways in which we show our caritas love for others. Many of us contribute to charitable works with our income; many of us also volunteer to perform those charitable works, depending on our gifts. We care for family members and friends who need assistance, and as Christ taught us, often for total strangers as well.
The mechanisms for “loving one another” are abundant, if we wish to avail ourselves of them. But what does it mean to actually love one another — to feel it in our hearts? I’m reminded of a very insightful Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz in which Linus tells Lucy that he wants to become a doctor. Lucy scoffs at that ambition by telling Linus that doctors have to love mankind in order to qualify. Linus then shouts, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!”
Or to put it another way, consider a couple of wise axioms. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” one advises, while the other reminds us that “familiarity breeds contempt.” It’s easy to love in the abstract, and perhaps even more in the first blush of acquaintance — and the first blush of faith as well. When the Holy Spirit enters our hearts, we see our brothers and sisters in a new light as fellow children of God, struggling and stumbling as we do.
After that first blush, however, caritas becomes a heavier lift than we think. Familiarity begins to breed contempt as conflicts arise; turning the other cheek becomes ever more difficult. After our brief moments of seeing the world anew, as the Lord sees it, we get bogged down in the same-old, same-old. We tire out, we withdraw, and despair enters our hearts as the realities of life in this fallen world become hardened in our vision.
We still love mankind, of course. It’s just the people in it we can’t stand.
So how are we to carry out Christ’s command? In the first place, we need humility enough to recognize that we aren’t called to save the world. That was and is Christ’s job. We are only called to be one of many others who are trying to advance His mission by the smallest of steps, in the hope of Christ for all of God’s children. We cannot measure our caritas on a global scale, but only on the smallest of personal scales. It does not matter if our love doesn’t change the whole world; instead, we should ask ourselves if we have at least changed one life for the better and helped people to see Christ.
To help us keep that perspective, our second reading from Revelation reminds us that it is God who will make all things new, not us. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Voice from the throne as He announces that He will now make his dwelling with mankind. All that we knew from this life — the earth and the sea, the sky and the stars — will be swept aside and replaced with their holy counterparts, the creation that God himself has ordered. Everything old and worn by sin will be renewed.
It is only then that humanity will be rescued from its fallen nature, and only then when we will fully see ourselves through the eyes of our Creator as He intended us. Because of this transformation through Christ, we will no longer suffer “death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” We will no longer suffer envy, avarice, conquest, or the other sins which plague us and interfere with our ability to truly love one another the way that God wants. We will have formed ourselves to put all those aside and to trust in the Lord’s abundance. The Lord Himself and our interlocking love within the Trinitarian life will be not just sufficient but fulfilling to an unimaginable degree.
That doesn’t make the journey on this side of the veil a breeze, of course. Even with this knowledge, serving others with Christ’s caritas as He commands in today’s Gospel is nearly impossible to do right over a long period of time. Perhaps we should recall the words of Paul to the Corinthians when those times of doubt and weariness come. “Love never fails,” Paul writes in a passage we hear more often during wedding celebrations than during dark nights of the soul.
We need to recall this more often in the latter, during those times when we fail in Jesus’ commandments and despair at the supposed lack of impact from our efforts. We may never feel rewarded in this life for the hard work of loving others as Christ has loved us. It may cost us more than we can bear at times. But that love never fails, as Christ never fails, and He will use it at some time to make everything old and failed into something new and victorious. And we can be there at the end, if we choose His path.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.