Pope Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), his first encyclical, emphasized that being Christian “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This emphasis on an encounter with Christ has been a regular theme in the writings and preaching of the Holy Father, who is intent on Catholics having a better understanding of the foundational truths of the Catholic Faith — and then living accordingly.
He further noted how Christ united the commandments of love for God and love for neighbor (see Mk 12:28-34). This new commandment given by Christ is rooted in divine love, flowing from it and then returning back to its source, the Triune God. But it is not a commandment in the ordinary sense of the word, wrote Benedict. “Since God has first loved us (see 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.” A command devoid of love is not familial, but merely contractual or practical; it might “get things done,” so to speak, but it only goes so far. And love without obedience and recognition of proper authority is not really love at all, but is simply sentimentality; it has no strength or structure. Neither fulfills our deep need and longing for life-giving love and eternal meaning.
Jesus, having spoken of himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches (Jn 15:1-16), further connected his mission — and the mission of his disciples — with the perfect love he shares with the Father: “As the Father loves me, so also I love you.” The Father’s commandments are not arbitrary or confusing, but are perfect expressions of his love for man. The Father desires all men to be saved. But salvation cannot be forced or coerced because it requires, in the end, the free acceptance of God’s love.
John, in his first epistle, pinpoints three stages, as it were, of this freely offered salvation. First, “God sent his only son into the world.” The Incarnation was a radical response to a radical situation: Man, severed from divine life, needed a way to span the chasm between his mortally wounded state and God’s holiness. The answer was God-become-man, closing the horrible divide through divine humility. Second, God “sent his son as an expiation for our sins.” This is the sacrificial “love to the end” that “confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 616). The sinless Son of God took on our sins. “No one has greater love than this,” he told his disciples, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And, third, Jesus gave his life “so that we might have life through him.” That life is divine, supernatural, beyond any proper expectation. It can be ours for one reason only: God is love. God, states the Catechism, “wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created, in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son” (No. 52).
Later in his encyclical, the Holy Father makes this striking statement: The Christian knows — or should know — “that disdain for love is disdain for God and man alike; it is an attempt to do without God. Consequently, the best defense of God and man consists precisely in love.” This love is not a feeling; it is not romantic; it is not based in calculations. It is sacrificial, selfless, committed, joyful and persevering. It is of God.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.