Dr. Aaron Henderson is a Faculty Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.← Return to Essays
“Jesus brings God's commandments to fulfilment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbour, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Love of neighbour springs from a loving heart which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love (cf. Col 3:14) …. Jesus himself is the living "fulfilment" of the Law inasmuch as he fulfils its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal Law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit, he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions (cf. Jn 13:34-35).”
—John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, no. 15
As the new year begins and many of us make resolutions, some concrete and realistic, others perhaps less so, the words of Jesus may be especially discouraging: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Our Lord is not addressing, of course, economic, academic, or aesthetic perfection. In other words, the Christian life does not demand that we become rich or supremely intelligent or beautiful. Instead, Jesus is speaking of moral perfection, a natural and supernatural integrity of life and action. But even if we have narrowed our focus, this command of Jesus may seem unreasonable, and an unreasonable command is no real command at all. The good news is that the heights of holiness can indeed be reached with God’s gracious help. Were Christ asking us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, the command would indeed be impossible. Enlivened and empowered by God’s grace, however, a life of holiness is within our grasp.
What does this life of holiness entail? St. John Paul II reflects on the biblical answer to this question in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. Though human life can be complicated and convoluted, the life of holiness requires, above all else, something simple: love. But this word is often distorted today, becoming very much like the squishy, vapid resolutions I mentioned above. Love is reduced to a feeling, an emotional state, and thus reduced to something turbulent and temporary. When Jesus speaks about love, on the contrary, it is something mighty, something profound, something worthy of animating one’s life.
For St. John Paul II, as for the entire Christian tradition, looking to Jesus shows us the path to love. I would like to draw out three essential elements of love. First, love (for example, the kind of love we find in virtuous friendships) involves willing the good of another person, and not for any perceived benefit but for the person’s own sake. While there is an emotional love proper to the human person, the love we are speaking about is fundamentally an act of the will. And because it is such an act, it is not subject to the turbulence and transience of emotional love. Consider a married couple that has been together for 40 years. There are bound to be days when the married persons do not feel in love with each other. Nevertheless, though emotional love when rightly ordered is a good that often accompanies voluntary love, voluntary love transcends emotional love. This distinction between love as an emotion and love as an act of the will explains at least part of the complex reality of divorce in the United States. Because couples confuse the two, often they base a relationship on emotional love and neglect the higher, more stable form of love that wills the good of the other in season and out of season, “in sickness and in health,” as the marriage rite puts it. When emotional love ceases or, God forbid, turns to hatred and resentment, the relationship itself crumbles.
Where do we see this aspect of love exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus? We see it in His entire life of obedience to the Father for our sake, but especially in His willingness to die on the Cross. In the garden, our Lord’s humanity cannot help but cry out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And yet, because His human will is perfectly conformed to the Father’s will, He can say, “Yet not my will but Thine be done” (Mt. 26:39). It is a fearful thing to approach death, and thus we see Jesus in distress and sweating blood (Lk. 22:44). But He never ceased to will the good of our salvation. We too are meant to show our love for God in acts of obedience: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). For those of us who are still imperfect, our emotions may militate against this saying of our Lord. After all, sometimes I may not feel like obeying God; it may feel better in the short term to pursue bodily pleasure and eschew higher goods. For those who have reached the heights of holiness, however, there is an emotional joy that accompanies obeying God. Love, as St. John Paul II says, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. In this life, love is inextricably tied to self-giving, to sacrifice. Here, of course, Jesus is the ultimate example. We are not called merely to a fleeting emotional love but to a love that endures all for the sake of the beloved.
The second aspect of love is that it is always founded and grounded in the truth. This is quite a controversial point today, since many people have so absolutized the human will that whatever one chooses to pursue, to love, is justified, and justified precisely because one has chosen it. On the contrary, to state the matter simply, we cannot love what we do not know. Notice the respective implications of these opposing views. For the modern view of love, founded in an understanding of the will as an unfettered power to choose anything whatsoever, might makes right. The person with the stronger will inevitably wins out. Consequently, human relationships devolve into power struggles, occasions to manipulate and dominate others. For the classical view, founded in an understanding of the will as an intellectual appetite, all human beings are beholden to the wise and good order that God has created. Our willing must be in conformity with the truth about the created order, about the human person, and about God. When we choose something contrary to the truth, we are not free persons but slaves. The truth really does set us free (Jn. 8:32), and set us free primarily so that we may love as we ought.
Jesus’s entire mission hinges on the fact that we cannot love what we do not know. That is why the Son, the only one who has seen the Father (Jn. 1:18), comes to reveal the Father to us, so that we may know and love Him. This is our Lord’s prayer: “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that thy love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn. 17:25-26). It is our job, then, whether by reflecting on the order of creation or on God’s word in Holy Scripture, to know God so that we may love Him all the more.
Finally, love should be focused on God; one should love God above all else. This is true even on the natural level, though for fallen man this is impossible without God’s healing grace. It is all the truer on the supernatural level, since we are called in charity to love God firstly and others, even sinners, out of love for God. God is to be loved above all else because love is of things lovable, and God is most loveable. Indeed, He is goodness itself and the source of all that is good. “God is love,” as 1 Jn. 4:8 says. When we place God first, when we love Him above all else, our other loves become rightly ordered. We are able to love our spouses, our children, our neighbors, our coworkers better when these loves are enlivened and perfected by love of God. Jesus Himself says when asked which is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Christian life hinges on these two commandments. They are inseparable, yes, but one is higher: love of God.
As we continue in this new year, let us remember with St. John Paul II that at the heart of our moral and spiritual journey toward perfection is love, a love that wills the good of the other for his own sake, a love that is always grounded in the truth, a love that is ordered first and foremost to the God who is love. Even if our other resolutions fall through, fulfilling the commandment of love will make this year fruitful.