Seek Eagerly After Love
A reflection on Deus Caritas Est and Sacramentum Caritatis
(What follows is the text I delivered for the Presentation Ministries Young Adult Presentation that was part of the annual Bible Institute.)
The State of the Question
To the world, love so often equals sex, with perhaps a longing for something more. Pop culture holds up the example of Sex and the City, among numerous movies and other shows that extols meaningless sex as ‘love,’ and then the culture wonders why there is a greater use of ‘pick-me-ups’ to cure that hollow feeling inside.
There is no depth to love, as the Modern World sees it. So much, love is at best an emotion, as people talk of “Falling in love” as if love is some type of magic moment. As the modern world understands it, love is pure emotion; there is not intellectual component, there is no understanding of commitment, sacrifice, ‘till death do you part.’
The result of this is that when a couple falls out of love, divorce makes sense, because there is nothing more to continue.
In the consciousness of the modern world, then, Love is reduced to a bare minimum of sex, with perhaps a connotation of an emotional connection at best.
The Church’s Response
Into this context of an idea of love=sex, to speak of God as love is nearly incomprehensible.
However, This is not a phenomenon new to this millennium. Pope Paul VI cautioned about the dangers of separating sex from its procreative end in Humanae Vitae. In this reaffirmation that sex is to be protected by the sanctity of Marriage, he called the marital act to have the following four characteristics:
Fully Human: involves the whole person, body and spirit
Total: special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything
Faithful and exclusive: until death, which is a profound source of lasting happiness
Fruitful/fecund: it is a love that is so powerful that nine months later, you give it a name
To this, Paul VI adds the prophetic announcement: “To use this divine gift destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and its purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of god and His will.”
Pope Benedict’s Development
Building on his two predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI wants to bring us back to a depth of an understanding of love, re-introducing two concepts from Ancient Greek Philosophy, that when taken together can helps us to reverse this trend of an emptying of love and restore it to its rightful place.
First off, he defines love in two ways: Unitive and Self Sacrifice, or Eros and Agape
Eros is the unitive aspect of love, the desiring of the other. If we remember that all Love is a reflection of God, we can see this in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God created us out of love and wants us to be with him so much, that he gives his Son for us. Why did Jesus come? So that the chasm that was established in the Garden of Eden could be repaired and we could live with God forever.
But you see in that passage, the hints of the deeper dimension of that Love, which is revealed in John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” So that unifying aspect of love, that aspect which is so prevalent in pop culture, needs to be guarded and guided by the free giving of one person to the other, or for the other. This is how the love of husband and wife and the love that guides and drives the celibate priest, religious, or single, leads us to reflect God’s love to the world.
Correction of Eros
In his examination, Pope Benedict takes a critical eye to the concept of Eros, noting that while Eros gives that connotation of passion, of zeal, of energy; if it is not constrained it starts to corrupt.
He notes the temple priestesses/prostitutes in Ancient Athens, who were seen as goddesses in and of themselves, honored on the outside; but in reality they were prisoners and slaves, trapped by eros.
Because this situation was rightly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments, Pope Benedict cites that Christianity, specifically Catholicism, is often derided as opposing the body. He writes in paragraph 5:
Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
Agape: Giving of Self
Benedict turns to the Song of Songs to delve further into this topic. As this great biblical book starts, there is a passion and an energy, but it has no direction, it is seeking its own fulfillment.
However, as the lover starts to discover his beloved, he pours everything of himself out to her. The Holy Father states:
Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.
All throughout the Gospels, the truth rings that true life is found not it hording and obsessing, but in giving yourself freely to another.
The Experience of God’s Love
The desire should be growing among us, as Christians, to be drawn deeper and deeper into the Love of God. The answer in the Baltimore Catechism continues to reverberate: Why did God make us? To know, love and serve Him in this life and the next.” St. Augustine echoes through time, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God!”
We are truly programmed to be ‘lovers,’ and to respond to God’s love. As we awaken to the depths of this two-fold love, we start to see how Jesus calls us deeper, we recognize in him the great dynamic of love. Christ’s death on the cross is not a demand of a blood-thirsty God, a God seeking vengeance. Rather, it is Jesus Christ giving himself in the most profound act of love that has ever happened. It is no mistake that every act that we do as Catholics should be marked by the Sign of the Cross, for it is a sign of Love.
The follow-up to the Deus Caritas Est is Sacramentum Caritatis. As I see them, they are to be taken together. Benedict is selling true, authentic Catholic Christianity, and he is trying to draw us deeper into the mystery of Christ himself.
Clearly, if we believe and worship a God who loves us so much that He sends His only begotten Son to us and for us, this God is not dis-interested. This is a God who cares about us and desires for us to get to know Him better, to become more like him, to draw us closer so that we can be with Him forever.
The wisdom of the Biblical Faith, of Catholic Christianity shines forth ever brighter: Jesus left us a memorial sacrifice so that He is able to remain truly present with us until the end of time, and so that we can become more like him.
The sacrament of charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God's infinite love for every man and woman. This wondrous sacrament makes manifest that "greater" love which led him to "lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). Jesus did indeed love them "to the end" (Jn 13:1). In those words the Evangelist introduces Christ's act of immense humility: before dying for us on the Cross, he tied a towel around himself and washed the feet of his disciples. In the same way, Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us "to the end," even to offering us his body and his blood. What amazement must the Apostles have felt in witnessing what the Lord did and said during that Supper! What wonder must the Eucharistic mystery also awaken in our own hearts! (SC 1)
Free Gift of the Blessed Trinity
As the Holy Father discusses elsewhere and builds upon the theology and writings of his predecessor, we note that in His innermost mystery, God is essentially love, it all of its forms.
This is a powerful love, a love which erupts in life for all those who come into contact with it.
8. The Eucharist reveals the loving plan that guides all of salvation history. There the Deus Trinitas, who is essentially love, becomes fully a part of our human condition. In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives himself to us in the paschal meal, God's whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us. God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At creation itself, man was called to have some share in God's breath of life. But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure, that we have become sharers of God's inmost life. Jesus Christ, who "through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God", makes us, in the gift of the Eucharist, sharers in God's own life. This is an absolutely free gift, the superabundant fulfilment of God's promises. The Church receives, celebrates and adores this gift in faithful obedience. The "mystery of faith" is thus a mystery of trinitarian love, a mystery in which we are called by grace to participate. We too should therefore exclaim with Saint Augustine: "If you see love, you see the Trinity."
Christ’s death on the Cross is love in its most radical form, the perfection of the two forms of love discussed at the beginning of this presentation.
Eucharist and the Church
Recent discussions (and documents) have raised the question about what constitutes a Church versus an Ecclesial Community. The document, which is dated June 29, reaffirms that to be a ‘church’ there has to be a connection to the Apostles, and through this Apostolic Succession, the gift of the Eucharist.
There is a clear connection between the Eucharist and the life of the Church, as the Holy Father states in Sacramentum Caritatis 14:
The Church "draws her life from the Eucharist”. Since the Eucharist makes present Christ's redeeming sacrifice, we must start by acknowledging that "there is a causal influence of the Eucharist at the Church's very origins”. The Eucharist is Christ who gives himself to us and continually builds us up as his body. Hence, in the striking interplay between the Eucharist which builds up the Church, and the Church herself which "makes" the Eucharist, the primary causality is expressed in the first formula: the Church is able to celebrate and adore the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist precisely because Christ first gave himself to her in the sacrifice of the Cross. The Church's ability to "make" the Eucharist is completely rooted in Christ's self-gift to her. Here we can see more clearly the meaning of Saint John's words: "he first loved us". We too, at every celebration of the Eucharist, confess the primacy of Christ's gift. The causal influence of the Eucharist at the Church's origins definitively discloses both the chronological and ontological priority of the fact that it was Christ who loved us "first." For all eternity he remains the one who loves us first.
The Holy Father is pulling together those two dimensions that he discussed in his prior encyclical: God desires us to be with him so much that he freely and completely gives himself to us.
At this point, I think it is important to call to mind that Church is called the mystical body of Christ, it is the living out of Jesus’ statement that “where two or three are gathered, I am right there with you!” Interestingly, I heard at one point that in the Early Church that the Eucharist was called the Mystical Body of Christ, while the Church was called simply the Body of Christ, and at some point they switched.
Seek Eagerly After Love
At this point, this has all been in the clouds. How do we connect to life here and now in the year 2007 in Cincinnati, Ohio?
This is the area where the saints start to shine, for each saint has his or her own path to holiness, which is essentially their own unique way that they responded to God’s invitation to Love. Once again, time to take a step back: Deus Est Caritas, is not an accidental title for the Pope’s first encyclical. God is Caritas, the specific form of love that we come to understand in the English context as Charity.
When we practice this love, we show forth the Love of the Father to the world, it is a love which is evangelistic in the greatest and deepest sense, because we show that God loves us all.
The Holy Father highlights the choice of the first seven deacons who are to be servants of the Twelve for the people. The primary concern in their selection is that they be men of prayer: handling the material goods of the Church necessitates a spirituality! (That’s why we call the leaders of the individual communities Father and Pastor, not business administrator!)
The Love that we share, which is nourished by our participation in the Eucharist, is counter-cultural, it is called to fight the culture of death with a radical embrace of the Culture of Life!
The Charity that we offer to the world is not just pity, it is Caritas! It is a making of the other’s needs our own. The Holy Father praises the new found movements that are changing society, and ones that are reaching across denominational lines as a new source of unity among all Christians. (In this country, I can specifically mention the pro-life movement which is uniting Catholics and Evangelicals in a way unforeseen up to now.)
One caution is that we do not fall in the trap ourselves. It is tempting to do mission trips and service projects and to think: “I am so glad that we are able to go there and help those people.” That is not caritas/charity! Whenever I go with young people, I always try to prepare them by asking the question: how do you recognize the face of Christ in the poor? How are you changed by an experience of poverty? Gratitude?
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
No discussion of charity and love and Eucharist can be complete without mentioning and extolling Mother Teresa of Calcutta. How was she able to do what she did? Think about the impact that she had: a poor, Albanian, Catholic nun got a full state funeral in a Muslim and Hindu country.
Why or how? She lived her faith to the nines! She had such a powerful love of Christ that she desired to give everything that she had that she might follow after him, that she might be with him. She holds us to the highest standards as well, she extols us to embrace our faith completely, and to live it without fear. But she also gives a very simple way of obtaining the love of God, which I think is something that we all desire, by following the simple statement that “God does not ask that you do great things, only that you do little things with great love!”
But the important witness in her life is how her prayer life informed and directed her charitable life. The Holy Father writes:
In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service. In her letter for Lent 1996, Blessed Teresa wrote to her lay co-workers: “We need this deep connection with God in our daily life. How can we obtain it? By prayer”.
Love as Gift of Self
In the great paradox of faith, love is not the possessing of the other, but the gift of the self to the other. This is played out not only in marital love, but also in the celibate love of priest and religious and in the charitable love that is to mark all Christians.
One last quote from Pope Benedict:
Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift. DCE 34
(Excuse any typographical or stylistic errors, this is the best I could do with blogger!)
(The bolded headings mark out each slide in the presentation)