Those words—God is love—are taken directly from our Second Reading this morning, the First Letter from the Apostle, St. John. We know that John was the only apostle not to suffer the fate of martyrdom. He was exiled, instead, to the small island of Patmos.
There is a legend that—while John was of course not able to leave that Island—Christians nonetheless were allowed to come to see him. Week after week, according to that legend, crowds would come to hear him preach the Gospel, and the message he preached, week in and week out, was that message of love.
Finally, one day, someone said to him:
And John’s reply was:
We have to wonder, if St. John were alive today, would he still be preaching that same message?
In St. John’s Gospel this morning, we hear the words of Christ given to the Church on the night before He died. He says: “This I command you: love one another.”
Now, if we are honest, we can admit that the command to love is not always an easy one to follow. We live in a world that is often cold and indifferent. We can all think of people we have encountered in our lives that we find very difficult to love. How are we able to obey this command that Jesus gives us in the Gospel this morning?
The answer, I believe, is found in St. John himself. He says, in that Second Reading:
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
—1 John 4:10
That’s the answer:
Not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us.
St. John—who gives us that insight—was a man who experienced the love of God completely. All throughout his Gospel, he never refers to himself by name. Over and over again John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John was a man loved by God; he never really got over that fact. It was something that never left his mind.
In the very beginning of St. John’s Gospel, in the first chapter, he describes how Andrew and “another disciple” came to know Jesus. The “other disciple,” of course, is John himself. He says that Jesus invited them both to follow Him. John puts it this way:
They went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon.
Now, that is a very odd description. Who cares that it was four in the afternoon? But it mattered to St. John because, on that day, at four o’clock in the afternoon, everything in his life changed. He was seized by Christ, loved by Love, and nothing was ever the same again.
Think about your own life. If you have children, you can probably remember the very hour that they were born. Or perhaps you remember exactly what time it was when you married the person you fell in love with. That’s what St. John is talking about. He was seized by the love of Christ, and it was four o’clock in the afternoon.
In the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI describes this very same response we are to have to Jesus’ commandment in the Gospel. He says:
The “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be commanded because it has first been given.
In other words, God can command us to love because, in Christ, He has come right into our very lives and loved us first.
The Holy Father goes on to describe the Bible as the story of God’s love, a story in which Christ comes to us, seeking “to win our hearts”: at the Last Supper, when He gives Himself to us in the Eucharist; at the cross, when He gives Himself over for the forgiveness of our sins; and everywhere else in those first days of the early Church (DCE, #17).
All throughout history, if we look at all the greatest saints in the Church, we see this same Gift of God Himself in love; we see this same response from those whose lives were changed forever by that personal encounter with the God who is love. Their entire lives proclaimed that message: Deus Caritas Est; God is love.
We, too, are called to proclaim that same message; to witness to the God of love with our words and actions in this world. But that will never happen, it will never take place, until we have first been seized by Christ and loved by Him.
God calls us—just as He called St. John, and countless others—to know Him and be loved by Him; to know His forgiveness, His mercy, and His love in the deepest possible way.
Today we ask for that grace to open our hearts more completely to the God who is love, so that we may be faithful in responding to that command of Christ: to love one another, as God has loved us.