The Holy Father writes that St. John’s First Letter gets to ‘the heart of the Christian faith’
By Deacon Bob Hunt
In memory of our beloved Pope Benedict XVI, I would like to offer a reflection on Part I of Benedict’s 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God Is Love.” Next month, I intend to offer a reflection on Part II of the encyclical.
Benedict begins his encyclical quoting the First Letter of John: “‘God is love, and he who abides in God abides in love, and God abides in him.’ These words from the First Letter of John,” Benedict writes, “express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, St. John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: ‘We have come to know and to believe the love of God for us.’ We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Being a Christian is not merely assenting to a series of doctrinal claims or following a set of moral rules. Neither is it adopting a particular ideology, philosophy, or worldview. Most fundamentally, being a Christian is to encounter and enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ risen from the dead. This encounter, this relationship, becomes the defining factor of one’s life. It shapes the way the Christian sees the world and relates to it, as well as the way he or she sees the past, present, and future. Most importantly, it determines how the Christian understands God and understands oneself and one’s relationship with God.
Benedict writes that the Song of Songs, the beautiful poem in which two lovers communicate their desire for each other, describes the relationship between God and humanity. We can enter into union with God, but in doing so we do not lose who we are. Rather, we become all that we can be, all that we were meant to be in the first place. It is a union that creates love, so that God and the believer become one, while remaining themselves.
This union with God is not one that we initiate. It is God who acts to become one with us, and the supreme act of His doing so is the Incarnation, when God became “God with us” and in Jesus Christ came in search of His lost sheep. Furthermore, His death on the cross is the act by which God even turns against Himself, giving Himself in order to raise us to eternal life. “This,” Benedict says, “is love in the most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand [that] God is love. It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation, the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.”
This union, as well, is not simply for each of us individually. In receiving the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I become one with the Lord, just as do all others who receive Him. “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom He gives Himself.” All people are my neighbor, for Christ gave Himself for all. Love becomes the criterion for who I am before God. Benedict writes: “Jesus identifies himself with those in need . . . ‘As you did it for one of the least of my brethren, you did it for me.’ Love of God and love of neighbor become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus, and in Jesus we find God.”
Just as those in human relationships grow so close that they begin to share the same desires and same goals, so, too, in our relationship of love with God. We begin to think like God and desire to act according to His will, so that His will and our will become one. “Incline my heart according to your will, O God,” the psalmist sings (Psalm 119:36). God’s will is no longer foreign to me, imposed on me from outside of myself by moral rules or commandments. God’s will is now my will. We develop with God a communion of wills. This is how we come to love others as God loves them. I begin to see others as God sees them, as Jesus sees them. Those whom Jesus loves, I love. And Jesus loves everyone.
The love of God and the love of neighbor are linked. Only if I love God can I love my neighbor as God does. Only in service to my neighbor are my eyes open to see all that God does for me and how much He loves me.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.
Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.