The first reading for today, the Thursday after Epiphany, is taken from the First Letter of John. This morning at the Word on Fire Chapel, the team celebrated Mass, and Father Steve Grunow offered a reflection on the nature of love in light of the beautiful revelations contained in this biblical passage and in the very event of the Incarnation. Read Father Steve’s homily here (a short spiritual reflection to close your day).
Many people have the impression that the Christian spiritual life is simply the performance of ritual or legal expectations which are imposed on one’s life, the performance of which guarantees one the reward of heaven. In this respect, the practices of the Christian life are not ends in themselves, but a means—an act of self-interest.
This impression misses the mark.
There are definite expectations in regard to the Christian spiritual life, but these expectations are ordered and motivated, not simply by self-interest, but by love. Therefore, to attend Mass, even when we don’t want to, is an act of love. To fast at the appointed time, even though we are hungry, is an act of love. To perform the works of mercy, even when such gestures are difficult, is an act of love.
But, what is love?
Since Monday, the First Letter of John has spoken eloquently and repeatedly about love. We have been told that God is love and that Christ has revealed this awe-filled truth. We have been asked to love one another, because to do so is to become ourselves ever more like the God that we worship. And today, we are told that we cannot hate our brother or sister and at the same time believe that we love God.
The stakes are very high in John’s words. They beg the question that I have asked: what is love?
Our culture identifies love as affection motivated by feelings. Love is represented by our emotional attachments, and the depth of one’s love is demonstrated by one’s emotional expressiveness. However, St. Thomas Aquinas goes deeper that this in his assertion that love is an act of the will. It is not merely an emotion, but a conscious and deliberate act that is expressed in willing the good of another person. And, the good that we should will for the other is not merely an extension of what we might desire or need for ourselves, but what is truly good for that person.
Therefore, what is at stake in love is not so much emotional satisfaction (either my own or the emotional satisfaction of the object of my affection), but what is good and true. To will this for another person—that is what love is and what love is all about.
Emotional definitions of love, even though they are popular, tend to be fairly thin; what St. Thomas proposes is pretty thick as far as definitions go. Aquinas’ definition is also much more difficult because whereas our emotions can get us off the hook in terms of loving someone, Thomas’ sense of love gives us little excuse to say that we can’t.
It is not that we can’t love, but that we won’t. We decide not to.
Coming face to face with our refusals to love is what this morning’s scripture from the First Letter of John is all about. Many people are not all that lovable inasmuch as they do not inspire great feelings of attachment or affection. But, we can still will the good of others, even though they are unappreciative or seemingly unworthy.
To love in this manner is to imitate the love of God in Christ, which is totally gracious, undeserved, and unmerited. Christ does not love us because we are necessarily lovable, but because his desire—his will—is for our good. He wants what is good and true for us. This is what it means to love.
And, this love is what he commands us to will for one another.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.