“The person who has love is far from all sin” (St. Polycarp, AD 69-155).
As we celebrate his feast day this week, St. Polycarp’s quote is particularly appropriate as we also begin the first full week of Lent. Polycarp was a direct disciple of St. John the Apostle. St. John’s repeated teaching throughout his Gospel, his Letters, even the book of Revelation is summed up best: “Beloved, let us love one another because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
What is the Christian virtue of love, therefore? The common understanding is more often understood as pleasant feelings or affections for someone. However, such ideas are really more self-love and not rooted in God’s love for us. Self-love comes and goes quickly. It is fickle and fails to have lasting permanence. Consequently, many relationships that people thought were based on love can quickly or even over a period of years fall apart because one or both persons are unwilling to fulfill what is required of true, lasting love based on God and not on our fallen, human nature.
Genuine love always manifests itself through sacrifice. Unless we are giving up something, we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that we love someone else when, in reality, we are only inflating our deluded self-love. As soon as a person no longer provides us with what we desire, then we can tell ourselves that we have “fallen out of love” with that person. In contrast, Jesus tells His Apostles that He has loved them (and us) to the end, which for Him meant embracing the Cross. He commanded them—commanded and not suggested—that they love one another to fulfill His New Commandment: “As I have loved you, so also you must love one another” (John 13:34).
The essence of our Catholic faith, therefore, is to grow daily in love for God. Popular belief would say that Catholicism is only about “keeping rules.” People who utter such a superficial understanding of Catholicism never had proper faith formation. Conversely, this week’s Gospel, for example, shows us from the life of Christ directly how love for God overcomes sin and temptation, and thereby, gives us the freedom of the children of God to love Him freely and willingly.
After His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus fled into the desert to face three temptations. For forty days, He was living most basically; how did He triumph over Lucifer? Love of God the Father was greater than any seduction that Satan could offer. Mark’s Gospel gives a truncated account of the temptations while Luke provides the detailed account with which most people are familiar (see chapter 4). In all three temptations, Lucifer tries to seduce Jesus into devolving into a false Self by displaying His divine power in mundane ways (turning stones to bread, being a powerful ruler over kingdoms, and forcing the Father to protect Him by putting Himself in explicit danger). In effect, Lucifer wanted Jesus to assert His own authority independently of God or anyone else. Jesus, however, reduces the Devil to silence: He always defers back to what His Father has revealed in Sacred Scripture by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy. In other words, the Word of God Himself, Jesus, uses God’s own words previously revealed to banish the Enemy from His presence.
An important lesson is found here for us and not just for Jesus. He gives us the model of how to approach temptation: we develop daily a true, deep love for God. This makes temptation less appealing, especially over time if sins are deeply rooted. The only way to banish a vice is by practicing virtue. We have the greatest theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. As St. Paul says, love is the greatest of the three because love lasts perfectly into eternity (Colossians 3:14). Therefore, when we put into practice the virtue of sacrificial love, we begin our eternity here and now, as it were.
What did Jesus sacrifice? He sacrificed His own will in favor of God the Father as He told His disciples, “I do not seek my own will but the will of the One who sent Me” (John 5:30). He did what Eve refused to do, and then soon after, what Adam also refused to do. They demanded their own will over and above what God had revealed for their own good. Now, they wanted to define what was good and what was evil. The creature, once again like Lucifer, was in rebellion against his Creator. The tragic result was sin and its consequences. Now, mankind was no longer able to return to God the love that he once did because selfish, self-love was now introduced into the world freely by Adam’s fault.
Nevertheless, God is always stronger than any rebellion we can foolishly wage against Him. The Son of God came down from heaven to show us not only how He was going to repair the breach caused by our sins, but He was also going to show us what true, genuine, lasting love consists of: sacrificing ourselves (our own will, demands, and wants) in favor of God’s goodness and the good of our neighbor. Paradoxically, the more that we sacrifice, even though it often does not feel pleasant or comfortable, the more that we have an inner sense of peace that we are doing a greater good by rising above our momentary emotions and remaining steadfast in God’s goodness and truth. Only love of God can accomplish this, and the inner peace is not a mere emotion because very often doing what is good according to what God has revealed feels uncomfortable and meets with ridicule or disdain from others. Jesus, however, gave us the model and the way for us to see that our sacrifices done for love of Him, even though it may not be met in this life with praise or even recognition, bring us an eternal reward by sharing in His chosen instrument, the Cross, as the path to His life and His Sacred Heart. Only love can see that we sacrifice in the short run in order to run the race of our salvation in the long run.
William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (Act 3, scene 1) relates the famous saying that goes back to at least 1555: “Tell the truth and shame the Devil.” Lent is a privileged season when we take an honest look at ourselves asking God to reveal the truth of who we are. That truth can be difficult to accept for many. However, we know we never have to wallow in self-pity for things done in the past or for honestly realizing that we have become a person less than noble. With God, all things are possible, and every sincere, thorough Confession is a whole new beginning in God’s very life. We make a new start by first asking ourselves how we can love God more fully each day. Perhaps we can read the Gospels, study the Scriptures more often, dedicate time to daily prayer by speaking to God as two friends who have known each other for years talk to one another, read the lives of the saints who inspire us to be the persons we want to become, receive Holy Communion more often at daily Mass, begin praying the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, or the Stations of the Cross so that the mysteries of the life of Christ become united to our own daily life, or perhaps practice works of humble service to our loved ones within our family, in the parish, or in the larger community for love of Jesus Himself. There are many ways that we can cultivate a greater love for Jesus, His Blessed Mother, and for one another this Lent. As we begin to take on this virtuous yoke, as it were, in our spiritual and corporal life, we begin to see that the things that used to call out to us in temptation begin to wane and lose their attractiveness. The life of Christ becomes more and more our first and greatest love in our life. That is the true measure of a holy, blessed Lent that anticipates the joy of Easter. May each of us live that greater love of God and our neighbor that we are called to in these remaining Lenten days.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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