What is love? It’s a hard thing to explain. My computer’s dictionary says that it is an “affectionate greeting offered to another on one’s behalf.” Countless musicians and artists have taken their stab at it and have come up with very little, with one musician even answering the question by beseeching the listener, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.” The reality is, I think, that there is no form or instructional manual that tells us what love is and how we exercise it.
Our first reading from Exodus today suggests a few ways to show it, or to live the live that God is calling us to. It says to treat aliens with respect. Not the Area 51 type aliens, obviously, although I guess we should probably respect them too, but still, we’re called to treat immigrants with respect, as we do all people. But is that love? Not really. The first reading also calls us to treat others fairly when we lend money. But is that love? Not really. In fact, the Books of Exodus and Leviticus are filled with laws and precepts that are meant to help us treat others with respect, such as the Ten Commandments. But is that love? Not really.
Love is a complex thing. And in fact, in Greek, there are four different words that translate into English as love. Philia is sort of love, but its more friendship or brotherly love than anything. Storge is kind of love, but it’s more of an affectionate parental love. Eros is sort of love as well, but its more of a passionate, driving, and desiring love. The one given to us in the Gospel, and the one that I believe ultimately is the foundation of those other kinds of love, is agape.
Agape is an unconditional, undeserved, self-sacrificing love. It desires union, and leads to the total gift of self to another. You see, when you say you love Steak and Shake, and oh, do I love Steak and Shake, you’re saying that you love the way it tastes, and you wish you could eat it all the time if it didn’t lead to congestive heart failure. That love that you might have for Steak and Shake isn’t about Steak and Shake, it’s about you. But when you say that you love someone else, like a husband, wife, child, parent, you’re saying that you love spending time with them, getting to know them well, sharing your experiences with them. You’re saying you love them so much and are willing to give your life for them.
Using this word “agape” is good, and it helps us to understand kind of what Jesus is talking about, but it isn’t enough. And so Jesus tries to show us how we’re supposed to express that love in our two key relationships – with God and with others. He tells us that the most important commandment is love of God. But what does that mean? It’s easy to love someone when they’re standing there for you to see and touch. But how do you love a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ultimately invisible? Love of God means loving him with our heart, mind, and soul. We desire what God desires – that’s loving God with our whole heart. We understand and value the things that God values – that’s loving God with our whole mind. And we live in a way that shows those desires and those understandings that we just talked about – that’s loving God with our whole souls. But Jesus isn’t finished there. He says that the second commandment is like the first, and that is to turn that love for God around, and treat others as we ourselves long and desire to be treated.
Loving God is tough, but loving others can sometimes be even more difficult. Again, there is no instruction manual, no song, no magazine article that will give you the secret formula for loving others better. But think of it like swimming lessons. We have a great instructor in the Holy Spirit, but He can’t make any progress with us if we’re standing on the side of the pool. We need to take the risk of wading into the water. So the first thing we need to do is to tell God that we truly and sincerely wish to follow his commandments of love and to love like him. That little walk on your way up to receive Holy Communion is a great time for this, so take that time to renew the commitment! But after we decide to take the risk, we have to learn from our instructor, being open to his teaching and removing anything that is blocking us from following it. Without that instruction, without God’s grace, we can’t make any progress. Take that second step remove those things blocking God’s grace and try to make use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, God’s gift of love and peace. But then, the third step, after wading in, and receiving that instruction, is to get to work, exercising and improving, beginning first with the basic strokes and moving to more advanced ones. The best way to improve in loving others is by starting with those closest to you, treating them with the respect and attention that they deserve – family, friends, coworkers, teammates, and classmates. And as you grow stronger in the basics, you can go to the next step, in loving others.
The love that Jesus shows us here isn’t some passing, self-indulging emotion, one that just wants to get what we can out of something – like Steak and Shake. It’s a courageous, sacrificial, and enduring lifestyle that we learn through the gift of ourselves to others. And this lifestyle is summed up in one symbol – the crucifix. So as we approach the Lord in the Eucharist today, that sincere gift of Himself out of love for us, let us strive to live that same lifestyle, and give that gift of ourselves to God and to others.