The Scripture passages for Sunday’s Holy Mass read like: Just in case you didn’t get the message already, Love, Love, Love!
The word appears 19 times in the readings. 19 times. And that’s just in the second reading and the gospel. The word ‘love’ 19 times. So, we get the message, I hope.
God is love. The law of God: love. Christ’s commandment: love. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. Love is all you need. Gimme love, love, love, love, crazy love.
We got it.
But if an alien has just arrived from another planet, totally unfamiliar with our human tendency to use shibboleths, empty words without real meaning in our lives… If he were standing in the narthex, and he heard the word ‘love’ 19 times during our Liturgy of the Word, perhaps he might honestly ask us, “This word, ‘love,’ my dear earthlings, what does it mean?”
He could say: “I hear people use this word to mean such different things. Some of you earthlings wear t-shirts that say, ‘I love me my Dairy Queen.’ Some people say they love baseball. Some stand up and declare, ‘I love you forever,’ and then get divorced.”
The alien would have us dead to rights. We have got to come up with some kind of respectable definition that makes what we mean when we say ‘love’ more precise.
Let’s start with this: God loved us first. Before we were twinkles in daddy’s eye, even before the heavens and the earth were arrayed to accommodate us, God loved us.
He brought us into being, not because He had to, not because he had a complex or was compulsive or was saying to Himself, ‘I need people on earth, or I’m going to freak!’ No. He calmly, deliberately, with sovereign blessedness, made us. He made us solely and simply out of good pleasure, delight, graciousness, and love.
Then, when we turned away from Him, He sent His Son, out of love. To die, because of love. So that we could be reconciled to our Maker and live in the love that He had for us in the beginning.
He loved us first. Our love, such as it is, is our response to God’s love. Which means that Part One of any accurate definition of love involves: Loving God as the source of all goodness, upon Whom we depend for everything. Love begins, in other words, with religion, with piety, with prayer, with hymns and adoration and praise.
While we engage in our acts of love for God, we of course must listen to what He says. And what does He say? The man in need, right near you: that is Me. The little child, who comes into the world demanding everything, with nothing to give but eyes full of wonder: that is the wise sage that I want you to learn from. The person whom you dislike, and who dislikes you; the one of whom you do not approve at all: that is the one you must love above all.
Love isn’t love if it isn’t humble. St. Paul put it that way in his world-famous thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians: Love does not insist on its own way.
TV commercials use the word ‘love’ to mean, “I want. I need. I will have!” But love, according to St. Paul, actually means: “I let go of what I want. I let go of myself altogether.” Love means submitting myself to something other than myself, something beautiful and true. St. Paul teaches us: Because I love, I forget myself and make sacrifices without even thinking about it, for the sake of the beautiful good which I love.
Ok. Next question: Is love a passion, or is it a virtue?
The idea that we could love by pure personal will-power is kind of laughable. How seriously would anyone take me if this happened: Megyn Kelly walks into the building, saying, “I am looking for a priest to interview.” And I said, “Well, I don’t really want to talk to you, but for the good of souls, I will do it.” Hardly. Of course I would be like, “Please, sit here. Can I get you some coffee? A pizza? My car?”
Love always starts as a passion, not a virtue. But, by the same token, the idea that real love is pure passion and no will-power—no one in a marriage that has lasted longer than a week thinks that, either. Love might be pure passion in the movies. But, in real life, the passion of love must become the virtue of love, by our own repeated acts of discipline, whether we feel like it or not.
Love, also known as charity, is, in fact, one of the seven virtues that makes a Christian a Christian. And the seven virtues go hand-in-hand; they rely on each other for success. True love, therefore, is: faithful love, hopeful love, prudent love, just love, brave love, and temperate love.
At the same time, it is love that makes all the other virtues truly virtuous. For us, not just faith, but loving faith. Not just hope, but loving hope. Not just prudence, but loving prudence, loving justice, loving fortitude, and loving temperance.
Only God knows what ‘love’ means exactly. But just because something lies shrouded in divine mystery doesn’t mean that we can sit still and let it become a vague and meaningless word. Love must truly constitute our religion, our fundamental program of life.