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United by Love





            “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6: 5). This commandment seems out of place in our day. Is it possible to love under duress? For us, love must be spontaneous, must come out from the inside. It is impossible to be obligated to love. We understand love to be basically a feeling of the soul that is difficult to explain. As Pascal said, love has its reasons which are not to be reasoned with. To order another to love is to provoke a negative reaction. It is to devalue his personality by taking away the innermost aspect of his being. We understand love in the romantic tradition that sees all beings related to each other in nature and thinks that love is the force that unites individuals who know that they belong to a primordial unity. Romanticism considers human beings as integral members of the natural order. Romantic love has its roots in the subjective and unmediated depths of our being that, rising to the surface, express themselves passionately even when controlled by social mores.

            In the Old Testament, on the other hand, love is choosing, preferring. That is, it is an exercise of the will. The vocabulary of classical Hebrew does not have words that describe mental states or capacities, and even less, those words with which to study our subjective activities the way it is done today. It does not have the words “mind”, “reason”, “will”, “argument”, “conscience”, etc. Mental and psychological functions are located in parts of the body. The heart is the organ of the will, not of feelings and emotions. These are found in the stomach and the intestines, the entrails. It makes sense, therefore, to command others to love with all their heart, that is, with singleness of purpose. This way of expressing the idea is also found, for example, in the beatitude of the pure in heart, or of a simple heart (Mt. 5: 8). Those incapable of deciding what they want have two hearts, rather than a well integrated, single heart.

            If to love is to choose, to prefer, the commandment to love God with all your heart is perfectly understandable. To love God is to choose God with singleness of will, rather than other gods. The perennial temptation of the Israelites was to serve the gods of the Canaanites. To love and serve Yahve was the requisite that Moses put before the people prior to entering the land of Canaan. On the other hand, Israel is the chosen people loved by Yahve. Even though Amos and Isaiah recognized that Yahve was also involved with the history of other nations, for them, undoubtedly, Israel was the chosen people with whom Yahve had made a covenant. Israel is the apple of God’s eye. It is the chosen, preferred, loved people of God.

            Like love, its opposite, hate, does not have the connotations of powerful sentiments of enmity or dislike provoked by prejudices or desires for vengeance. That Isaac loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob (Gen. 25: 28) only tells us who was the preferred son of each of the parents. That Jacob loved Rachel (Gen. 29: 18), but Leah was hated (Gen. 29: 31) tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Gen 29: 30). That is, Leah was not his preferred wife. This usage also appears in Jesus’ declaration: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12: 25), and in his observation that those who hate him hate his Father also (15: 23 – 24). The narrator explains that this would fulfill what is written in “their law”, but is actually said by the psalmist (Pss. 35: 19; 69: 4). Here to love and to hate contrast the uses of the will and the need to make a choice. Today any one who hates his life in this world is diagnosed as mentally ill. The text, however, speaks against giving preference to life in this world.

            According to John, as noted in a previous column, maybe more than any other New Testament document, breathes the atmosphere of the Old Testament. Even though it is based on a radical dualism between the flesh and the spirit, and utilizes the Greek vocabulary with evident nuance and a broad understanding of its philosophical connotations; it presupposes good knowledge of the Jewish traditions. This cultural richness is evident in the way it presents Jesus’ new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (13: 34, cp. 15: 17). Like the commandment that they should wash each other’s feet, this new commandment is addressed to the community of disciples. Its fulfillment will be their identity card as a community. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13: 35).

            That to love continues to be understood as to chose or to prefer is evident in the references to the “beloved disciple”, that is the preferred one. The message that Lazarus is sick comes to Jesus as, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (11: 3). This distinction is then relativized by the explanation: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11: 5), that is, they were preferred friends. Something quite different is going on when the narrator says that on his way to Lazarus’ tomb “Jesus wept”, and “the Jews” interpreted this saying: “See how he loved him!” (11: 35-36). This scene is another one of those full of irony in which things are not what they appear. The interpretation of “the Jews” is undoubtedly evidence of their lack of understanding. To think that Jesus wept because a preferred friend had died is to deny that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Jesus wept, no doubt, frustrated by having to put up with the lack of faith of “the Jews” who insisted on rejecting his mission. He did not weep to show his humanity, or because his emotions had taken hold of him seeing the anguish of the sisters who had lost a dear one. He wept on account of the incomprehension of those who fail to recognize that they are in the presence of the one who can undo their own mortal condition.

            In the Farewell Discourses Jesus refers to the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This love manifests the glory that the Father has given to the Son because he has loved him since “before the foundation of the world” (17: 24). This glory is veiled during the Son’s pilgrimage on earth. The Son’s crucifixion, which in reality is his “lifting up” and his return to the Father, is declared to be his glorification. It is so because the unity of the Father and the Son founded in their mutual love is restored when the Son is lifted up to the region “above”– that is, when he returns to the place from which he came. The Son is “glorified” because he has revealed to all humanity the unity that love established.

            What Jesus desires, about which he insists in the Farewell Discourses, is that the glory of the love that establishes unity be a reality in the community of his disciples. He wishes that this glory be the glory of his disciples also (17: 22). The love that projects the glory of God is not the romantic love that is based in the subjectivity that all creatures share in nature. It is the love that unites the Father and the Son who share the divine Being. As a consequence, as Jesus says, the Son only does the will of the Father (14: 31); he “abides” in the love of the Father (15: 10). The union accomplished by this love projects glory. The glue that produces a union without glory cannot be the love that constitutes the unity in the divine Being.

            According to John gives us a definition of love that is not quite the act of preferring or choosing, characteristic of Hebrew thought; nor is it the emotional attachment of the Greeks which is based on natural, internal impulses, even if they are not conceived as subjectively profound as in the Romanticism of the XIX century. In this gospel love is more than preference, choice or a subjective force that wishes to possess the other. Johannine love is the agent of unity in the divine Being. According to John gives us not only a new definition of love as the foundation and the agent of unity; it also gives us a new definition of the glory of God. Rather than being an emanation of power, glory is the manifestation of the love that accomplishes the full union of those who remain who they are. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. The two, however, are one because they are united by true love.

            At Nicea (325 C.E.), a council convened by Constantine to use Christianity as the glue that would unite the very diverse parts of his empire, the Fathers of the Church established the unity of the Father and the Son by concocting a new word, homoousios [of the same being], and described the union as ontological. They also specified, against Arius, that the Son was “unbegotten”. According to John, which provided the basis for the development of a Christological doctrine based on the notion of the Logos who was “at the beginning” with God, speaks of the Son as monogenes [only begotten], and of the Father and the Son as united by love.  

            The biblical verse most often recited probably is the one that says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3: 16). Normally it is assumed that those who love wish to incorporate another unto themselves. The first thing that catches our attention in these words is that God demonstrated his love for the world by giving, relinquishing the Son. But God did not give him indiscriminately. God gave him for a well defined purpose. God gave him to enlarge the circle of those who are united. God gave the Son so that once lifted up, glorified, he could become the object of faith that must be seen by all human beings (3: 15). God gave him so that those who see him lifted up, those who believe in him should have eternal life. In this gospel, both to believe and to love, almost exclusively, appear as verbs or participles. Those who believe are those who love. Faith is not the ability to agree with a doctrinal proposition. Faith, like love, is a power that unites. The glorification of the Son, which reveals the unity of the Father and the Son in mutual love, is the agent of love that unites the believers in a community that reveals the glory of God and attracts others to God’s love.

            The glory manifested by the Father in the glorification of the Son on the cross must also be manifested in the Christian community that is united by love, rather than by power, knowledge or authority. In such a community the commandments of Jesus, not the law of Moses that Jesus describes as “your law”, are the ones taken to heart. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (14: 21). The fulfillment of the commandments of Jesus is tied to the love of the Father and the Son, and causes the Son to manifest himself in those who keep them. The commandment of Jesus is that his disciples love one another. This will cause him to manifest himself in them, and the world will recognize them as his disciples.

            The first Letter of John, a document that reflects circumstances some years later in the history of the Johannine community, gives the final definition to this way of seeing things: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4: 8). Those who are born of God (1: 13; 1 Jn. 4: 7) can only be the manifestation of the love that produces unity in the Father and the Son and in the community of the disciples. The Christian community that is united manifests the glory of the Father and the Son (17: 26). The love that unites it is founded in the ultimate reality of the divine Being: “That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (17: 21).

Jesus’ essential doctrine was an open challenge to the only fundamental doctrine of the Jews: God is One. When “the Jews” detect that Jesus claims to have the prerogatives than only God has, and thus was “making himself equal with God”, they intensify their desire to kill him (5: 18). When Jesus declares: “I and the Father are one”, they take up stones again to kill him (10: 30 – 31). When Jesus qualifies this declaration saying: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father”, they again try to arrest him (10: 38 – 39). These declarations were made in public, and they sparked accusations of blasphemy, “you, being a man, make yourself God” (10: 33). When he was alone with his disciples, Jesus emphasized that his oneness with the Father is founded on love, and unfolded an alternative to the doctrine of God held by “the Jews”: The Father, the Son and all his disciples are One. Analyzing the words of Caiaphas, the narrator explains that what the high priest of that year said was, in reality, a prophecy of the significance of the crucifixion: “Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (11: 51 – 52). The love that unites the Father and the Son does not just extend to the disciples. It also “gathers into one” all those born of God (1: 13) who are still dispersed throughout the world.

            This is the evangelistic method that the Father endorses. The “world” will believe in the Son as the One Sent by the Father only when it sees the Christian community united by love and keeping the commandment to love each other (17: 21, 23). This will give to the community that believes and loves the glory that has its origin in the Father: “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (17: 22). In such community Jesus does not only manifest himself (14: 21). He is actually “in them” (17: 26). The glorified Christ is not absent. He abides in the midst of those who abide in the love of the Father and the Son: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home [abode] with him” (14: 23). God does not abide in temples (4: 21), but in those who love God. For this reason Jesus advises us: “Abide in my love” (15: 9).

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