God is Love
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, astounded the whole Christian world by publishing his first encyclical, 'God is Love', with these introductory remarks, "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others". Perhaps no one could be more astonished and delighted on hearing this papal pronouncement than myself, for the Pope's first encyclical letter happened to be on the very same topic as my doctoral thesis, 'God is Love', entitled, 'Agape - A study of St. John's Theology of Love', submitted to the faculty of Biblical Theology of the Pontifical Urban University for the Propagation of the Faith, Vatican City, Rome.
For John, the 'disciple that Jesus loved' (and who loved Jesus), the 'religion' that Jesus preached is a religion, or rather the religion of love, that both God brings us and awaits from us, being both the act or fact of love that is God himself, by which the Father wills the welfare of man even to the sacrifice of His Son, and the love infused by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers that rules their whole Christian life. This double aspect of Love is the content of the Gospel message of the 'Word' of God that comes to us in Christ, which is essentially a Word of Love, being both the expression of his love for us and at the same time the command to us to love one another, the progressive revelation of divine love and at the same time an appeal to love as a response of gratitude on the part of men.
This twofold aspect of the one Agape-Love is evident in the formulation of the new precept of Christ, which is the expression of the new covenant initiated by Christ, "A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another - as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34). The novelty of this precept lies in the very essence and intimate nature of the love that is imposed on man which is the image and imitation of, and the participation in the love of Christ (Jn 17:26). It is the same love that, having the love of the Father as its beginning, source and exemplar, is communicated, through the mediatorship of Christ, to the disciples, who must then reach out to the brethren so as to return, through Christ, to the Father.
For true love, namely, the love that is 'Agape' in Johannine terminology, a love that is spontaneous and disinterested, creative and universal, is seen not so much in human love, even in our love for God, but in divine love, in God's infinite love for man. For love is from God, in fact 'God is love'. This means that his intimate Trinitarian or strictly divine love (his life of giving and union) is that great moving principle of all his divine activity which is solely for the good of the object of his love, man.
Many are the manifestations of God's love for man; but the manifestation that has truly shown us what love is, is the sending by the Father of His only Son into the world to save it from the clutches of Satan. Without the love of God the world would continue to be under the dominion of the Prince of this world and lie in Darkness and in the shadow of death. God's love for the world is the foundation and basis of its salvation, for it is the Father who takes the initiative in an unheard-of way, by sending his only Son into the world, to accomplish his plan of saving man. The Father's love for man is seen in His love for Christ his only Son, to whom He has given everything so that he may faithfully do his will even to dying on the Cross (Jn 3:16).
The fulfillment of God's plan of love begins with the coming of Christ in this world, the Incarnation, with a mission to perform. The accomplishment of this mission is on the one hand the manifestation of his love for the Father and the response to the Father's love for himself, for it implies perfect obedience to the Father's will to save man; and thus, on the other hand, it is the manifestation of his love for man for whose benefit he gladly performs his mission, the purpose of which is to give eternal life to man through Christ being the expiation of man's sins. But though the whole life of Christ manifests his love and the Father's love for man, it is in the Cross that we find the supreme manifestation of divine love. Even after his death Christ's mission of love continues in the gift of Himself in the Holy Eucharist and in the gift of his Spirit to the Christian and to the Church, and it will have its final manifestation in the final return of Christ.
Through the work of Christ, God has thus made accessible to man the new, true and eternal life, by which man passes from darkness to the light. But one condition is absolutely necessary for its acquisition - man's response by faith. The initiative no doubt comes from God, whose Trinitarian life is love, who offers man a share in this divine life of the Incarnate Son, who is at the same time the revelation of the divine Trinitarian life and the offering to man of the love which God is - but man must respond to the advances of divine love. If man refuses the love of God, he is not able to attain its end; it remains inefficacious. But if man responds to God's offer by faith, that is, by believing in God's love, submitting to it and accepting Christ as the offer which divine love makes of itself, then there results in him the new, divine life of love.
Participation in the divine life implies participation in all the attributes of this life. Man thus participates in the divine Sonhood of Christ, enters into union with the blessed Trinity and lives the very life of God which is ultimately a life of love. This love is the same love that coming from the Father, is made accessible by Christ's work of love, and is effused into us by the Holy Spirit. It is the very principle of our Christian being and the moving-force of our Christian activity. It must needs be diffused and expressed outwardly, for it is only by living this life of love, i.e., by loving, that we show the world that we are sons of God and that we know Him, for God is love.
We exercise this love negatively by freeing ourselves from contrary loves of self, darkness, the world, positively by loving as Christ loved. Now just as Christ manifested his love for us and for God, by obedience to the divine will, so also must we manifest our love by keeping the commandments of Christ. Since these precepts are reduced in the New Alliance to that of brotherly love, our life of love will consists ultimately in brotherly love. As the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves us, so we too must love our brethren. Christ's love for us, and not our love for ourselves, is the sole model and foundation of brotherly love. And just as his love for man, so too our love for the brethren must be expressed not just in sentiments and words but in deeds, whether they be ordinary and easy to perform, like helping one's neighbour according to one's possibilities, or heroic and more rare such as giving like Jesus even one's life for the brethren.
In any case, however, brotherly love implies the imitation of Christ and the participation in his life of sacrifice. Furthermore the objects of our love are like us sons of God and partakers in the same life of love of God. Hence brotherly love necessarily means love for Christ and ultimately for God, for it is a lie to wish to love Christ when one does not love his brother, and to love the Son is to love the Father. Accordingly perfect love is seen in those who love one another and thus keep God's commands, from whose souls therefore fear is cast out to give place to confidence regarding the judgment of God, and who thus abide wholly in the realm of love that is constituted by the one Spirit dwelling in their hearts. By such love men are perfected into one, even as Christ is one with the Father by virtue of the love subsisting eternally between them. So it is by brotherly love that the disciples of Christ are known and the love of the Father and the Son is made manifest to the world.
Brotherly love is thus the infallible manifestation of the divine life in us. Without it one remains in death, one lives in the darkness; but with it, one lives in God, one is in the light. By loving Christ, through their love for those whom Christ himself loves, man establishes himself in Christ's love. And finally, precisely because the intimate life of God, his Trinitarian life, consists in love, he who abides in love, abides in God and God abides in him.
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