These words of Our Lord in answer to the Pharisees’ question are unforgettably etched on our minds:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.
And today’s reading from the Old Testament gave us some guidance on how we should respond to Jesus’ command for such love of God:
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan;
If you take a man’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me I will hear him, for I am compassionate.
Showing such compassion to a neighbour in need was precisely what Jesus had in mind when He went on to say to the Pharisees:
And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Why then, if love of God and neighbour were already of the essence of the Old Testament, did Jesus need to die and rise again for our salvation and send out His Apostles to establish His Church that would endure to the end of time?
In the words of consecration every day at Holy Mass we find the ultimate answer to our question:
This is the chalice of My Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of Me.
There are many in the Church today who -- it would seem, misinterpreting the Christian and Catholic call to repentance -- seek to smooth over publicly acknowledged and doctrinally condemned sins with words of exuberant Catholic friendship for and human sympathy with willing-and-wanting-to-remain sinners; rather than commit themselves to working with wholehearted confidence in the grace and the goodness of God for the essential purity and unity of Catholic proclamation and practice (not of mere individuals, but of the Church herself). Jesus’ own words, however, tell us unambiguously -- as clearly understood by His Apostles but too often and too little appreciated today -- that His saving Blood was poured out, not as a gesture or sign of human friendship with sinners, but for divine forgiveness of their sins.
Some intimate thoughts Jesus shared with His Apostles at the Last Supper can help us here, if we can listen – as it were, with the Apostles – to their and our beloved Lord:
I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now (John 16:12). I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you (16:7). When He comes, the Spirit of truth, He will guide you to all truth (and) declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you (16:13–15) The Advocate whom I will send, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, He will testify to Me; and you also testify, because you have been with Me from the beginning. (15:26–27)
And so, the Son of God became man, died for us and rose again, before ultimately ascending into heaven, that He might send out His Spirit-endowed-Apostles to establish His Church and, through their sacramental handing-on of the Lord’s own most Holy Spirit, thereby enable us – members of the Church which is His Body -- to love the Father fittingly, finding joy and fulfilment in our hearing of and obedience to their ever-present proclamation of Jesus’ founding Gospel.
No human-being can love God adequately of himself, which is why the Jews -- even the most zealous -- were unable to keep the Law, as St. Paul repeatedly insisted:
Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin. As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; they have all turned aside … become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one." (Romans 3:9-12)
Not even those who are circumcised keep the law. (Galatians 6:13)
Despite the undoubted zeal and piety of many servants of the Law, the weakness of fallen human nature was daily and inescapably evident; indeed, unsuspected evil was ever lying most opportunely dormant: not only in the hearts of the politicised Sadducees and Temple priests, but also in those of the more spiritual and devout Pharisees and Scribes, as was shown by the fact that, when the Son of God came as man, all of them decisively rejected or ultimately hated Him to the extent that they were willing to have the Romans put Him to death on a cross for their own purposes and projects. And so, as St. Paul explains (Romans 8:3s.):
What the Law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decrees of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who live, not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Jesus, that is, came among us as one of us so that in Him, through Him, human flesh might indeed fulfil those just ordinances of God found in the Law given to Moses for the Chosen People; ordinances that human weakness and sinfulness had hitherto been unable to fulfil (Matthew 5:17-18):
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
This Jesus did out of His all-consuming love for His Father; for He willed that, henceforward, all who -- answering His Father’s call with obedience -- would believe in Him, should be enabled to live as members of His glorified Body in the power and under the inspiration of His Holy Spirit, and thus overcome their native weakness to the extent that, as Jesus said, they would surpass even John the Baptist, the greatest of those naturally born of woman, in giving glory to His Father.
And there, precisely, is the need for Jesus, the need for the Son to become flesh, for:
No one know(s) the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matthew 11:27-28);
O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them (John 17:25-26).
The glory of the Christian vocation therefore is that the Son is in us who believe, by His Spirit; and, being in us, He wills to lift us up further to Himself by sharing with us that love for the Father which is His unique prerogative. For, by declaring His Father’s Name to us ever more and more in Mother Church, He encourages us to return love to the Father together with Himself; to which end His own most Holy Spirit is ever at work forming us as living members of His Body and, in Him Who is the only-begotten and supremely beloved Son, as beloved sons and daughters of the heavenly Father:
Righteous Father, I have made Your name known to the men You gave Me out of this world. Although the world does not know You, I know You and they know that You sent Me. I made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love You had for Me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:6,25s.)
People of God, our calling is -- first and foremost -- to love God as our true Father above all, in all, and through all, and thus become, in Jesus, His true children. Such personal love of God is supremely authentic Christian holiness; whereas those things we tend to admire so much and value so highly on earth, such as achievements, reputation, charisma, talents, signs and wonders, are ultimately of no importance or worth except in so far as they are suitable expressions of such love.
How, therefore, are we to grow in that personal love, that ultimate and uniquely authentic holiness?
To that end we must examine our motives for aspiring to holiness. First of all, we must appreciate, long for, and aspire to, love of God, for His own most compelling holiness and beauty, goodness and truth; and then, for such love’s sublime worth in itself, and the supreme worth-while-ness it can bestow on a life given, devoted, to seeking it. Secondly, we must have the utmost reverence for the Divine Persons we aspire to love in holiness. No human being, no human authority, no human tradition can really teach us how to love God, because true love is a personal response to the God Who is offering Himself Personally to us. And although human authorities, venerable traditions, even holy individuals, are able and indeed endowed at times by God to help us with necessary guidance or timely inspiration -- which we cannot disregard completely or ‘a priori’, because we are called to live as one in the Body which is His Church, being guided and moved by the one Most Holy Spirit -- nevertheless, in that Body, the Spirit comes to us individually to enable us to respond to the Father, as Jesus said, with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), and that means totally, as an individual, and unique, person.
Only in Mother Church we can breathe most deeply of that salutary atmosphere needed by the children of God. In the Church, however, we must always take great care to have our mind and heart set on Jesus above all, for He alone is the eternal Son, still loving and glorifying His Father supremely here on earth as in heaven. It is through His Spirit that He leads us to love and glorify His Father with and in Him. In Mother Church, therefore, we must always try to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus going before us, and our ears ever more attentive to the breathing of His Spirit within us.
People of God, Mother Church is given us by Jesus to serve as our earthly Eden replete with heavenly food able to satisfy and fulfil all our needs and aspirations, if we will learn from her to delight ourselves in her Scriptures and Most Holy Eucharist, for to seek such food is our supreme Christian duty, while to find it is our deepest Christian joy. If we work at our Christian endowment through prayer, worship, reflection and good works, that is, through the practice -- however imperfect -- of continual companionship with Jesus in response to the prompting and guidance of the Spirit; if, above all, we deepen our commitment to both the Eucharistic Sacrifice where Jesus invites us to offer ourselves with Him in sacrifice to the Father and to Holy Communion where He comes to share with us anew His own re-creating Spirit, then the Father’s promise of heavenly reward and eternal fulfilment will become ours in instalments so to speak, even here on earth; instalments of a joy which both encourages us and most sweetly compels us to recognize its heavenly provenance.
Godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labour and suffer reproach because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:8-9)
God is never outdone in generosity, and our sincere efforts to grow in His love can and will transfigure our whole earthly experience.
My dear People, look after yourselves; you have already received great blessings from God and the promise of much more. Never, however, forget Jesus’ words (Luke 12:48):
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Produce fruit for the Lord in the garden of your soul while you can; but pray and aspire to produce the fruit that God wants from you: the fruit which He intended when He created you in His own likeness, and for which He so lovingly redeemed you. And what is that supreme fruit? Listen once again:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.