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Torch provides a new Catholic homily each week written specially for this web site by Dominican friars, and read by followers worldwide. Read more.

What is Love?

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Anthony Axe asks what kind of love Christian love really is.

Lust is at one end of the spectrum of popular ideas about love today, and at the other end love is spelt L-U-R-V-E.

Lurve is the subject of countless sloppy songs where real love is presented as some soppy emotion. The mood is everything. It's a totally self-centred and selfish approach. The way you feel is what is important.

But, somewhere in between Lust and Lurve is love. The kind that Jesus talks about in today's gospel.

But even then we mustn't mistake it for another kind of love - the kind with which we are all familiar. That love we have for a person which makes you want to spend all your time with them. This is genuine but shouldn't be confused with the kind of love Jesus talks about. Christian love isn't the same as being 'in love'.

Lust, lurve and being in love, these three are not voluntary. If you lust after someone, there may be little you can do about the feeling. You can, of course, choose what to do about the feeling, but that's another question.

The feeling of lurve is often due to the skill of film makers and storytellers, and we respond involuntarily to that sort of stimulus too. Being 'in love' with someone is also not a matter of choice. How many times have you been in love, against your will, with a person who doesn't reciprocate?

We somehow think that if love isn't spontaneous but calculated, then it can't be love. Yet this is exactly the kind of love that Jesus talks about in the commandment we heard in today's gospel.

You can't command someone to love in the three ways we've already looked at. I can't force you to desire the person next to you - assuming you needed to be forced. I can't make you feel sentimental over a Barbra Streisand love song. And you certainly can't be commanded to fall in love with someone, no matter how willing you are to obey.

Jesus doesn't ask us to love our neighbour like this. We are asked to love everyone as we love ourselves, and one would hope that one doesn't love oneself in any of these three ways.

But Jesus makes no bones about the fact that the exhortation for the Christian to love others is a commandment. Jesus is telling us that our current ideas of love are inadequate as models for Christian love.

What then counts as Christian love? The content of Jesus' teaching contains many examples. The Good Samaritan is an obvious case. The outcast Samaritan helps the beaten-up Jew, even though he knows that if had met the injured man in other circumstances, he would probably have been reviled by him or impolitely ignored.

Jesus' own life is the prime example of Christian love. He didn't have sentimental feelings about everyone he came into contact with - or even for those he never met. But this didn't prevent him from loving them. He even gave up his life for them. Again this was an act of will - not the result of sentimental feelings about the world and the human race in general.

One would hardly die for a sentimental feeling. People die for principles, and the principle Christians are asked to die for is that of Christian love.

And this shouldn't be onerous for us because it is a liberating kind of love. We don't have to feel guilty that we don't 'love' everyone - that is, feel sentimental and loving towards them. The kind of love that is Christian has nothing to do with feeling but everything to do with action. And action is something we can force ourselves into.

And this is what Jesus asks of us. As he says,

It isn't those who say, Lord, Lord, who will inherit the kingdom but those who hear my Father's will and do it.

In other words, it's not the people who feel well-disposed towards others and who can whip themselves into a frenzy of sentimental charity who grow nearer to God, but those who put their action where their heart is - firmly into the gospel and into obeying the great Christian commandment.

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Readings

Exo 22:20-26
1 Thess 1:5-10
Matt 22:34-40

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