A major theme running throughout the Gospels for the season of Easter is love. A few weeks ago, we heard the dialog between Jesus and St. Peter as the Lord asked Peter three times: “Do you love me.” The following Sunday, we heard about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who lovingly cares for His flock, the Church, even to the point of sacrificing Himself. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus give His disciples a “new commandment”, that we should love one another as He has loved us. Thus Sunday, Jesus says: “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”
I sometimes fear that this word “love”, especially as it is used in our Christian context, is misunderstood. The type of love to which we are called to as Christians is necessarily radical, which I think is one of the reasons Jesus tells us to love as He has loved us, which involves the total gift of Himself for the good of others, not for His own benefit. Not that there is no room for other forms of love in which we receive affection and support, but we as Christians always need to strive for the Christ-like love toward others.
At the foundation of our love for others is our uncompromising recognition of the dignity of every human life at ever stage. It can be tempting to think that the Church only cares about the dignity of life for children in the womb, since that is what we so often hear about when it comes to respect for life. But the Church is likewise insistent that we must see all life as a gift, for each person is a unique, unrepeatable gift of God, created by Him and deserving of love. No life is without dignity. Period. Regardless of the decisions a person has made, regardless of their social and economic status, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their gender, regardless of their age…regardless of anything, all life is a gift and deserves to receive love. But remember that love is willing the good of the other, not condoning whatever they do, for the most loving thing we can do in some cases is to correct errors, call to repentance, and invite conversion.
Christian love becomes radical when it asks us to show love to those who are the most undeserving in our mind. Our country witnessed another horrific example of hatred last week in Buffalo when a gunman murdered 10 people and injured three others in what authorities believe to be a racially motivated attack. One might ask how and if Christian love applies in this man? I think you know the answer. But what does that love look like? As I mentioned earlier, it absolutely does NOT mean condoning such violence (or any of his motivations), for his actions took the gift of life from these innocent victims. Christian love does not exclude punishment, for justice is not opposed to mercy. It is well within Christian love to demand justice individually and collectively to address any affront against human dignity, but Christian love also leaves open the door for conversion. Think of St. Paul, how he was involved in the persecution of Christians in the early Church, a persecution that led to many deaths. Had Christians at the time not had a sense of the love to which the Lord was calling them, they would have taken his life and considered it justified. But they did not. They left room for the Lord to work in Saul’s (later Paul) hardened heart, to give him an opportunity for conversion, which led to his becoming one of the greatest Christians ever to live, responsible no doubt for countless conversions over the centuries.
Perhaps my bringing this up makes us feel a little uncomfortable thinking about love in the face of such hatred. But once again, this is the radical nature of the love to which Jesus is calling us, and I stress that it is only possible through His love. Left to ourselves, we will remain stuck in anger and hatred. Please do not try to hear what I am not saying on this topic – an atrocity like the one in Buffalo is not acceptable and I am not downplaying it in any way. It must be rejected and responded to, but I am inviting us to consider how we respond as Christians, not as the rest of the world would respond. In the early Church, Christians were seen as different than the rest of the world, and it was commented on by others: “See how they love one another.” Would that the same could be said about us in how we live our lives, how we treat others, how we respond to evil, sin and suffering, that we do so always motivated by the love with which Christ responds – a love always seeking the good which is ultimately salvation, for the Lord “desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tm 2:4)