This post was originally a homily given at the wedding of two very good friends of mine. The readings that preceded the homily were Genesis 2:4-9, 15-24; Ephesians 5:1-2, 21-33; and John 15:9-17.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people. Kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we are created, and you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.
The central vocation of every Christian, in every state of life, is to become people entirely characterized by love. Yet what is this love meant to be like? And what are some of the potential challenges involved in attempting to live this kind of love? The Christian call to love is derived from and modeled on the historical and on-going divine revelation. Our three texts today give us insight into the quality of God’s own love that forms the basis for this central vocation.
In our first reading from Genesis 2, we see the first marriage, which is an overflow of God’s initial creative activity. Here we can observe three themes emerging. First, God demonstrates the willingness to exit God’s own space, and enter into the world of another. In order to fashion humanity, God departs from heaven and comes to earth’s ground. God condescends to the plane of the creature in order to bring humans into existence. Second, God enters into a self-giving identification with the other. God does not create humans without first giving the gift of God’s very own self. We read that God breathes into the human’s nostrils the breath, or the spirit of life. Only through the gift of God’s very self, God’s own Spirit of life, are humans endowed with the ability to participate in the joy and mystery of living. Third, God’s creative love gives birth to further creativity. As God forms the initial humans, they in turn form a loving relationship, which gives birth, quite literally, to further new life.
In our second reading, from Ephesians 5, the author calls us to be imitators of God—to follow in the way of love exemplified by Jesus toward his spouse, the Church. As in the first reading, we see a similar three themes emerge. First, Jesus exits his own space to enter our world. He draws near to us, becoming incarnate as one of us, susceptible to the ravages of sin, suffering, and death. He so to speak, “leaves his Father to be joined to his wife.” Second, he enters into a self-giving identification with us. Twice we hear “he gave himself up for us.” He gave an entire and undivided self-offering of himself to us and for us, even to death and beyond. Jesus nourishes and tenderly cares for the Church. Quite literally, he “warms” her with the tenderness and warmth of his own open-hearted affection. Third, this creative love gives birth to further creativity. Out of Jesus’ compassionate self-giving, God brings into existence the Church, which the author explains in the first, second, and fourth chapters of the same book, is a dynamic, growing organism which is meant to fill the entire cosmos with the same creative life and power that raised Jesus from the dead.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us a new command, a new summary of the law: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Our love for one another is meant to take its shape from the pattern of Christ’s love. When taken together with the surrounding verses, we see the same three themes as dimensions of Jesus’ love. First, Jesus comes down from the Father, exiting his own space, in order to enter into the world of another. Second, Jesus lays down his life for his friends as the definitive act of self-giving love. Third, the love of Jesus creates the environment in which further creativity springs: the disciples are chosen to bear fruit—much fruit—fruit that will last. They will become a creative source of life and flourishing for those whom they touch. And since Jesus gave this talk the evening of the Last Supper, there is a Eucharistic framework in place. Jesus institutes the Holy Eucharist as a perpetual reminder of the kind of love the Holy Trinity has offered us to receive, as well as to give.
Love: whether we speak of spouses, parent and child, friendship, or any other possible configuration, all Christian love is meant to take on these traits demonstrated by the divine love. First, we abandon the fear of leaving our own space and entering into another’s world—seeing things through their eyes and from within their world—taking their experience and perspective seriously. Refusing to stay at a distance, but willing to come close—seeing, listening, touching. Second, not only does Christian love draw near, it gives of the self. It refuses to keep the heart reserved, staid, closed, and cold, but opens wide the warmth of the affections to the other. It identifies with the story and suffering of the other, feeling their pain as one’s own, weeping with those who weep. It lays down one’s life in an irrevocable gift of the entirety of one’s being. Third, love creates and fosters the conditions in which the life of the other can flourish and thrive. Through the gift of ourselves, we enable the nascent yet budding creative life of others to timidly emerge as the tremendous gift they are to the world.
It doesn’t take much to realize that this kind of love is hard. It is very difficult even to begin loving in this self-giving, open, warm, and affectionate way, but perhaps, it is even more difficult to continue loving in this manner. Laying down your life is a place of extreme vulnerability, where we open ourselves to unspeakable pain. It is where we expose ourselves to the deepest betrayal. It is when we offer what is most valuable and precious, what touches our deepest passions and highest joys. It’s where we risk losing everything. It’s where we experience the horrifying reality of crucifixion.
It is where we endure the most painful injuries and those most difficult to overcome — that threaten to have us withdraw into a shell of unapproachability where everything is safe and sterile, unstirred, unsullied, unmoved, unbroken—insulated from life’s deepest pain. The warmth of our affection repressed beneath mountains of unexpressed grief, our self-giving suffocated by an encasement of fear, our love diseased by protective isolation. Here no betrayal will touch us again, here love will never more be scorned. Yet we remain infinitely far from what our deepest and truest heart longs for. And having lost the ability and even the will to love, we have lost the burning center of what it means to be human.
C.S. Lewis put it this way:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
The pain of wounded love runs so deep that to recover from this veritable death would seem like nothing short of a miracle. A resurrection in fact: a rebirth of what is beautiful, good, and true, a resurgence of that singular treasure that outshines all others: a life poured out in love, fully given in a vulnerable self offering that is able to touch the vulnerable and suffering places in others, and in doing so, to gift others with the freedom to come out of their own unapproachability – to believe they too can share in the rebirth that Christ now shares with everything living.
Christians throughout history have believed that this type of miracle is precisely what happens when we celebrate the Eucharist. St. Ignatius of Antioch, around 100 AD called the Eucharist, “the medicine of immortality” and an “antidote against death.” Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life, and that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Holy Eucharist receive in themselves the power of life over death. Through the Eucharist we begin to experience, to taste, even now, the restoration of all things, the new creation of heaven and earth, that fully awaits us in the future.
Jesus in the Eucharist further exemplifies this three-fold pattern of love we saw in today’s readings. First, as we invoke the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, Jesus exits his own space and comes into ours. He draws incredibly close to us. Heaven and Earth touch. Jesus is made known to us, just as he was to the disciples—in the breaking of bread. Second, as the priest elevates the Host and breaks it, we see that the Jesus present with us, is ever and always a broken Jesus, a crucified Jesus, one who has given himself to us in an act of compassionate identification with our own suffering. He is tenderly with us, suffering with us, in all our experiences of pain, betrayal and wounded love. The Eucharist stands as Christ’s perpetual offering of himself to us in love. Third, as we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we receive into ourselves the grace and healing to arise amidst our pain, wounds, apprehensions, and fears to love others the way Christ loved us—to embody individually and together, the kind of affectionate, self-giving, vulnerable, and can we even say, Eucharistic, love to those in our lives. Whether they are spouses, friends, parents, children, strangers, as the Body of Christ, we become the extension of the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist to them all, as we embody Christ’s Eucharistic pattern and lay down our lives for them in love.
Despite the painful experiences of the past, having received Christ himself, we look forward with hope. By the grace of Christ’s living presence, we have confidence we will be able to give and receive the vulnerable, self-giving love we know is the fulfillment of our human vocation as well as our deepest and truest longings. When we receive the Eucharist, we experience
“the Spirit of the new creation in fellowship with the risen Christ [and] already experience here and now something of the ‘life given’ to the mortal, sick and repressed body. If hope looks forward to the final spring-time of the whole creation, then in the Spirit, the quickening of one’s own body is already experienced even now.” The spring of life begins to flow in us again. We get up out of our sadness and apathy. We begin to flower and become fruitful. An undreamt-of love for life awakens in us, driving out the infection of resignation, and healing painful remembrances. We go to meet life expecting the rebirth of everything that lives, and with this expectation, we experience our own rebirth, and the rebirth we share with everything else.” (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.