This I command you: love one another. These are the words of Christ. They could just as easily have been said by my momma. It’s nice that Mother’s Day falls on a day when the Gospel speaks so eloquently about love. Our own mothers should be the very first source of love that we encounter in the world. While, sadly, this is not universally the case, nevertheless it is what God intends. And none of us would be here at all if not for our mothers.
One could certainly make the theological statement that God’s love for us is greater than that even of our mother. This is true, because God’s love for us is perfect, while our mother’s love — at least on this side of the Beatific Vision — remains imperfect and because God loved us before the moment of our conception. In a theological sense, this is indisputable. In a practical sense, it is also very much the case that we know of God’s love for us only through revelation and by comparison to the love shown to us by our parents and by others who have been very close to us.
Christ commands us to love one another as He has loved us. He then says that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, and this is exactly what He does. Christ’s death on the cross is the perfect sacrifice — the giving of the spotless Lamb — in atonement for our sins. Our flaws, our failures, and our shortcomings are healed in the sacrifice of Christ; Our Lord gives His life for the salvation of ours and through His death opens to us the Kingdom of God.
That in itself is overwhelming. It is a perfect example of love. But it is not all of the story. Christ our King doesn’t say He lays down His life for His subjects; He says He lays it down for His friends. And we are His friends if we do what He commands, and this is His command: love one another.
A slave does what he is told. He doesn’t question what the master is doing; he simply does what he is commanded to do without much thought necessary of why. The “why” is entirely upon his master’s shoulders. If a slave is asked why, his answer can be, “because that is what I was commanded and I had no choice.” You can be a slave to Satan and say, “the devil made me do it.” You can be a slave to money. You can be a slave to power. You can even, sadly, be a slave to fashion.
Christ, though, is taking that relationship — and, frankly, that comfort — out of the equation. How can I call slavery a comfort? Well, if you are a slave to God and only have to worry about doing what He tells you — you only have to worry about following the letter of the Law — that is a comfort. You follow the rules and you have done well. You obey the Commandments as a slave, and you have it made.
Christ says, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Our Lord is elevating us to a position of power. It is no longer enough to simply obey the letter of the Law given to Moses. We must now obey the Spirit of the Law, and that is terrifying because it is open to interpretation. And not every interpretation is valid.
Fortunately, though, Christ does not set us adrift. We are given the Church as our guide and the Church itself is guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church — precisely because it is the Bride of Christ and is guided by the Holy Spirit — is the only authoritative interpreter there is. It is up to each one of us to make sure our own individual interpretations of what is good, and moral, and Scriptural are in line with what Holy Mother Church teaches us.
Why? Well, because Christ has told us — the whole of the Church — everything He has heard from the Father. For any one individual, it is not possible to hold that totality of knowledge in mind at one time. But it is possible for the Church to do that, because the Church thinks with the mind of Christ. When we focus too much on one element of Christ’s teaching, we can neglect the other elements. We can wander away from the whole and make an idol of a part.
When we wander too far afield, the Church calls us back to the fullness of truth. Love and discernment are both guardrails – and there are many – between which we should find ourselves if we want to remain in the fullness of truth. There is a tension — and there must always be a tension — pulling us between the various extremes: those that tell us love and don’t judge and those that tell us discern and don’t be fooled. Love without discernment can become merely license. Discernment in the absence of love can lead to hard-heartedness. Anyone who does not constantly feel that tension is either a saint or else asleep.
Christ chose us. We do the work of Christ in the world; that is what we are appointed to do. At the end of our life we will be judged on how well we loved. If our work bears fruit that remains, we have loved very well. If it does not, we have failed to love as we ought.
At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Christ says again, “This I command you: love one another.” It is possible to love someone and not agree with them. I suppose it is even possible to love someone and not find them very likable.
Christ doesn’t command us to get along with everyone. He doesn’t even command us to be nice. He commands us to love. Let me again use the example of my mother: she didn’t stop loving me even when she was mad at me. Even when she was telling me I was being a bonehead and to stop being stupid, she still loved me.
If she had simply been nice and pretended not to see the mistakes I was making, I probably wouldn’t have survived my teenage years. If she had been afraid to tell me when I was being an idiot, I probably would still be one. Was she always right? No. (Sorry, mom.) Was she always interested in what was best for me because of her love for me? Of course she was.
We have a lot to learn from mothers. Let us pray always for the grace to love as we ought to love — to obey the command Christ gave us — and to be worthy of being called a true friend of Christ. Let us pray that we may always live so that our thoughts and actions show clearly we have a genuine concern for the good of others and are willing to work for the welfare of all people.