A BRIEF SUMMARY OF “GOD IS LOVE”
The Basic Premise
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s encyclical “God is Love” invites the Christian to use Christ’s supreme act of charity, dying on the cross for our sins, as inspiration for our own understanding and implementation of love in our daily lives. Biblical faith since the days of the Old Testament confirmed that man was to love both God and neighbor. But with Jesus’s supreme act of charity, love became no longer a command but rather a response to God’s love and a sign of the closeness of the relationship between God and man. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it, because we are created in the image of God, and therefore are capable of following in Christ’s footsteps. “In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, [the message that God is synonymous with Love] is both timely and significant” (¶1).
Although the word “love” has different meanings in different contexts, it is clear that these different meanings reflect, not different realities entirely, but rather different manifestations of the same reality, whether “eros” (e.g., romantic love between a man and woman) or “agape” (e.g., altruistic love). Indeed, there is an overlap between “eros” and “agape.” Even if love starts out as “eros,” one partner eventually seeks the good of, and to be there for, the benefit another. At the same time, those who love in the manner of “agape” cannot always just give, they must also receive. “Agape” therefore cannot be completely separated from “Eros.” There is an inseparable connection between the types of love. It is clear that “love” is a single reality that has many dimensions, although some dimensions emerge more clearly at times than others.
The New Testament Greek uses “Agape,” rather than “Eros,” to refer to love. Various enlightenment writers thus criticized Christianity for downplaying that particular type of love between man and woman that these writers viewed as both a divine gift and a foretaste of the divine. But the criticism is not valid. History shows that “eros” needs to be disciplined and purified and cannot be separated from the concept of “agape” if it is to provide more than just fleeting pleasure. The enlightenment view calls to mind the view in Pre-Christian times in which “Eros” was seen as a form of divine madness that overpowers reason and allows man to experience supreme happiness. In pre-Christian times, fertility cults practiced “sacred” prostitution in pagan temples to facilitate this religious experience. But the reality is that the prostitutes were forced to provide their services and were being exploited. This and other examples show that history teaches that an undisciplined “eros” represents a fall of man, rather than an ascent toward the divine. Purification, growth in maturity and renunciation do not poison “eros,” but rather heal and restore its true grandeur. True “eros” tends to rise in ecstasy towards the divine, to lead us beyond ourselves, yet for this very reason it calls us to the path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
The Song of Songs in the Old Testament sheds light on how we might make this path of ascent and purification as well as on why the New Testament uses the term “Agape” to describe love. In the Song of Songs, there are two different Hebrew words that are meant to indicate “love.” The first, “dodim,” means a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. But the second, “ahaba,” similar to the Greek “agape,” is used later in that book to replace the first word and means a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. This is a love that is willing to undergo renunciation, and sacrifice, for the good of the beloved. This love looks to the eternal. It is “ecstasy,” not in the sense of momentary intoxication, but in the sense of a journey that is not bound through time.
“Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Jesus practiced this teaching through his death on the cross and later resurrection. Christ’s death on the cross, in which he gave himself up in order to save man, is the most radical form of love. It is this act that is the starting point for our new understanding of love.
Christian Love as a Means of Unifying Us with God and Neighbor
The New Testament teaches that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). The Old Testament book the Song of Songs also teaches that man can enter into a union with God which creates love. Scripture similarly teaches that love of neighbor leads to love of God and that both are required.
Man’s path to love of, and unity with, God is a surrender of man’s will. Although God is not visible that does not also mean that he is inaccessible. To the contrary, he is accessible to those seeking to determine and practice his will. The “yes” of our will to God’s unites our intellect, will and sentiment in an all embracing act of love. This process is open-ended and continues to mature throughout life. The love story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases into a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will continually coincide. God’s will is no longer something alien but rather becomes my own will.
As a result, love of neighbor thus becomes possible. In God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. Then I learn to look on this person not simply with my eyes and feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow more arid.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is a direct means of achieving this Union with God, as well as neighbor. When we take communion we become one not only with the Lord but with the other communicants. As Saint Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). We can thus understand how the word “agape” became a term for the Eucharist. God’s own “agape” comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us.
Christian Love in Practice
Saint Augustine said that when you see charity you see the Trinity. Love is the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man’s suffering and his needs, including his material needs. For the Church, charity is not something that could just as easily be left to others, but rather an expression of her very being. In the Church family no one should go without the basic necessities. The Church’s charitable obligations extends to members outside the Church as well.
Love of neighbor, which is grounded in the love of God, is reflected most obviously in the practices of the early Church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). This early Christian structure that reflected a radical form of charity did not last beyond the early Christian centuries, but its essential core remained in the recognition that none among the faithful should be allowed to be without a material thing needed for a dignified life.
The Church has recognized from the very beginning that love of widows and orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to the Church’s mission as are the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the word. But charity on a large scale requires organization. A concrete historical example in the Church is illustrated in the early choice of deacons who were given the responsibility of making distributions to the poor. Towards the middle of the 4th Century the “diaconia” was established in each monastery for works of relief and the service of charity. By the 6th century, this institution became a corporation with full juridical standing, which the civil authorities entrusted with the grain for public distribution. Even Julian the Apostate, the emperor who attempted to reestablish paganism in the Roman Empire, said that the sole aspect of Christianity that had impressed him was the Church’s charitable activity. He claimed that this was the reason for the popularity of what he called the “Galileans.” Charitable activity on behalf of the poor and suffering was thus an essential part of the Church of Rome from the very beginning.
Many Saints provide excellent historical examples of the Church’s charitable activities and stand out as models of social charity for all people of good will. In fact, the entire monastic movement, from its origin with St. Anthony the Abbot, expresses an immense service of charity towards neighbor. In his encounter “face to face” with the God, who is Love, the monk sensed the impelling need to transform his whole life into service of neighbor, in addition to service of God. In the vicinity of monastaries, there was a great emphasis on hospitality, refuge and care of the infirm.
Outstanding among the Saints is Mary, Mother of the Lord and Mirror of all Holiness. We know a small part of Mary’s acts of charity from scripture. Mary remained with her cousin Elizabeth for “about three months” to assist in her final phase of pregnancy (Luke 1:56). On the occasion of that visit she said “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). And although Mary receded during Jesus’s ministry so that Jesus could establish a new family, at the time of our Lord’s death, when the disciples fled, she was there at the foot of the cross. When Jesus told his disciple John from the Cross “Behold, your mother!” (Jn 19:27), he made it clear that Mary had become the mother of all believers. All the saints, but especially Mary, continue their work of love after their death. Mary, Virgin and mother, shows us what love is and from whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love. We should seek Mary’s intercession and ask her that we too can become capable of true love and be fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world.
The Church’s Charitable Duties Today
Christians should devote more time to prayer. Prayer as a means of drawing strength from Christ for the purpose of fueling charitable works is concretely and urgently needed. Time devoted to God not only does not detract from time and loving service to our neighbor, but is in fact the inexhaustible source for that service.
The Church should also use new technologies to the extent that they can be used for charitable purposes. One positive side of Globalization is that it has provided new technological means of providing for those in need. The means of mass communication has made the planet smaller and it also allows us to consider the needs of those outside our own national community.
Reflections Relating to Lay Persons
Our time has seen a significant spread in different kinds of volunteer work. The spread of this work is a positive development. This work, an expression of the culture of life as the volunteers are willing to “lose themselves” for the benefit of others, counters the culture of death. As John Paul II noted, Christians need to inculcate a “respect for the rights and needs of everyone, especially the poor, the lowly and defenseless.”
The duty of a just ordering of civil society falls on the lay faithful rather than the clergy. The mission of the lay faithful is to configure social life correctly. As St. Augustine pointed out, a government that is not ordered according to Justice is essentially a group of thieves. The goal of politics is justice. The just civil social order is not the particular sphere of the Church but the Church can contribute to a better understanding of what a just social order is.
Reflections Relating to the Clergy and the Church’s Charitable Organizations
The Church’s charitable organizations, on the other hand, are a part of her own direct duty (i.e., of the clergy and those under her direct supervision). Bishops as successors of the Apostles are primarily charged with carrying out the charitable mission of the Church. In the rite of episcopal ordination, the candidate promises expressly to be welcoming and merciful to the poor and to all those in need of consolation and assistance.
Feeding the hungry, providing clothing for the poor, caring for and healing the sick and visiting those in prison are the essential elements of charity. The Church’s charitable organizations, beginning with those of Caritas (at the diocesan, national and international level) ought to do everything in their power to provide the resources and personnel for this work. The people that perform this work should be not only professionally competent, but also inspired by authentic Christianity so that their work is based on a faith that is made active through love. This charitable activity should also be done independently of any party and any ideology, including any Marxist ideology. In fact, Marxism traditionally criticized charity as making an otherwise unjust system tolerable and therefore preserving the status quo. The truth is that the Marxist criticism seeks to sacrifice man to the “moloch" of a purportedly beneficial revolution that will supposedly happen in the future but that is, in fact, unlikely to actually materialize. Thus true Christians should have the urge to improve conditions wherever and whenever they see them and not to wait for a future that is promised by ideology. The Church’s charitable work must also be characterized by unconditional love and have no strings attached. The people working for the Church’s charitable organizations should be inspired by St. Paul’s statement in the Second Letter of Corinthians: “the Love of Christ urges us on” (5:14). That does not mean, however, that in doing its charitable work the Church should not speak of Christ, since it is precisely the absence of God that often causes the greatest suffering.
In short, in performing its charitable work, the Church should bear in mind St. Paul’s statement that “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). This statement must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service. Practical activity will always be insufficient unless it expresses love for man.
This brief summary is taken from the English version of “God is Love” at: