23 March 2012
"Baby, Don't Hurt Me..."
Within certain age groups, if a person introduces the phrase, “What is love?” and then pauses, the response of those listening will be, whether out loud or in silence, “Baby don’t hurt me,” following the lyrics of the song by Haddaway. They may even do a headshake gesture. But this song betrays a real question in modern culture today: what is love?
We talk about love in a variety of ways, while using the same word. We love our family. We love our boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse. We love our pets. We love TV shows. We love songs. We love particular foods. Each of these examples of love shows different ways that we apply the word love to different persons or objects. The temptation is that all of these meanings get blended into one, so that when we say we love a particular band, that meaning of love also seeps into what is meant when talking about a family member.
In our Gospel today, we hear the oft-quoted, oft-displayed passage John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Most everyone can quote it, the passage is so ubiquitous. And yet, as we delve into the meaning, we see something profound about God and about love.
What this passage expresses about God is pretty clear: God loves us enough that He is willing to send His only Son so that we can have eternal life, rather than eternal damnation. That’s a very strong love! God is willing to do everything He can, even humbling Himself to take on human nature and join it to His own divine nature, so that the God who, in His divinity could not be looked at or touched, could not be present to us, face to face, and could cry, could stub His toe, and could bleed. The God who created the universe and whom the whole universe cannot contain, spends nine months in the womb of the Blessed Mother, and then lives among us with all the limits of human nature, except sin. That is a powerful love.
What we learn about love, then, is that it’s not just a feeling. It’s not simply an emotion. And love means sacrifice. Because when Jesus, the Eternal Logos, became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man, the cross immediately overshadowed him. Yes, the Jews could have freely accepted Jesus, and some certainly did, but God knew from all eternity, because all time is as the present to Him, that the Chosen People, His People, would for the most part reject Him. Most of His people rejected the light when it came into the world, because they “preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” These are tough words, but they are no less true than what John tells us about God loving the world.
God’s love for us shows us that to truly love means to sacrifice. God’s love means pouring oneself out for another, as Jesus does eternally for us. He pours Himself out for us in the Incarnation as He did not grasp at His divinity, but emptied Himself and took on human flesh. Jesus pours Himself out for us on the cross as He gives all that He is, the God-Man, to atone for our sins. Jesus pours Himself out eternally for us in heaven, pleading for us at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is forever sacrificing Himself for us to the Father, not that he dies any longer, but that His very life, even after the resurrection, is still a continuous gift in whole to the Father.
That is the true meaning of love: sacrifice. We see it in so many ways, big and small: we see sacrificial love in realizing that your spouse or children may be glued to the couch during the month of March, watching NCAA basketball, and then going out of your way to pick up the slack so that they can enjoy watching March Madness; we see it in choosing to go to a movie that you know you hate but that you also know your friend or spouse loves. Love as sacrifice is lived out in caring of a sick family member or friend at all hours of the day or night without any thought of self. We see it in the love that remains faithful to the marriage covenant, even when one person is not being faithful, or maybe has even left. There are so many other examples, too, of sacrifices of many other kinds that people make for each other, joining Jesus on that cross on Calvary.
The danger for us is that in a culture where love is used for the union between a man and a woman in holy matrimony, as well as the union of mouth with hot, greasy, delicious pizza, the meanings can meld together. Our love of pizza, as good as it is, does not entail sacrifice. We ought not to do anything for pizza. We ought to be willing, at least, to give up everything for a spouse or a family member. We use the same word, but the meanings are as different as night and day. And if we’re not careful, they meld together, so that love becomes: what can you do for me? How can you bring pleasure to my life? Of course, love will bring pleasure and benefits. But those come as the result of sacrifice, not instead of sacrifice, just as the eternal reward of heaven is made possible not instead of the crucifixion, but only through the crucifixion.
Our beloved patron, St. John the Evangelist, could tell us about love which entails sacrifice because, though he at first ran away, he came back to the foot of the cross to see just how far God’s love was willing to go. He knew and could write that true love means giving all of yourself to another, because He was there when God’s love gave up everything in Jesus, even His own life, so that we could return to friendship with God. What is love? Love is the full gift of your very self: all that you are, all that you treasure, all that is dear to you for the other. To other persons, yes, but first and foremost to the God who is love.