The Sixth Sunday of Easter [B]
Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48 + 1 John 4:7-10 + John 15:9-17
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son as expiation for our sins.
Saint John, the Beloved Disciple, in his letters and Gospel account, fleshes out his description of God as “love”. In the last sentence of today’s Second Reading, St. John does this very poignantly, telling us that “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son as expiation for our sins.”
The first part of St. John’s description here insists on the primacy of God’s love.
When St. John says that love consists in the truth that God loved us, and not that we first loved God, he’s pointing out that God doesn’t wait to love you until He determines whether you will love Him back. God doesn’t stop loving you if you stop loving Him. In every sense of the word, God’s Love is primary. Our love for Him can only be a response, and cannot diminish His love for us if our love is in some way lacking.
But we all know from experience that confusion arises here. Human beings feel at times that God does not love them. One reason for this is that love—at least, divine love—is itself not a feeling. When people expect God to make them feel good, they can easily become confused about the real meaning of God’s love. This doesn’t mean that our feelings are illusory, or that God cannot manifest Himself through emotions. It’s to say, rather, that divine Love is not identical with positive emotions. God’s love transcends feelings, and can be present amidst the worst of feelings.
The second reason that someone might believe that God no longer loves him is the fact that it’s not unusual for God to be absent from the human soul. Yet God being absent from someone’s soul does not mean that God does not love that person. In fact, there can be very different reasons for this absence, one negative and one positive.
On the one hand, the absence of God from a human soul can be the result of mortal sin. A mortal sin that’s freely and knowingly chosen destroys all the grace dwelling in that soul. What’s more, the presence of a mortal sin prevents the reception of further graces. Ironic though it may seem, it’s a sign of God’s love that He endows the human person with a free will strong enough to keep His love at bay.
On the other hand, the absence of God from someone’s soul can be a sign of growth. This might seem counter-intuitive. Many saints, in writing about the three basic stages of the spiritual life, note that God often spurs the human person towards growth by temporarily removing Himself from the person’s soul.
It’s not that this person is no longer in a state of grace, but rather that the Christian has no sense or perception of God in her soul. Only darkness appears. But God wants His disciples to transcend appearances. He does this in order to increase the human person’s longing for Him: that is, in order to teach the human person to live for God alone.
One of the saints who wrote profoundly about the spiritual life was Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. In addition to serving as one of the first abbots of the Cistercian religious order, he also wrote many commentaries on Scripture. He often wrote about divine love, and also often wrote about the connection between knowledge and divine love. In one place St. Bernard writes:
“… there are some who want knowledge for the sole purpose of knowing, and this is … curiosity. And there are some who seek knowledge in order to be known themselves; and this is … vanity … and there are … those who seek knowledge in order to sell their knowledge … for money or for honors; and this is [greed]. But there are also those who seek knowledge in order to edify [others], and this is charity.”
Charity—the love of Christ—urges us forward throughout the course of earthly life, and even to death and Heaven’s gates. It’s to convince us of this simple truth that we hear Jesus today: “I command you: love one another.” He commands us to love not as we wish to love, but as He loves: sacrificially.