During his general audience on Aug. 9, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his weekly catechesis on the Church’s apostolic ministry. Having presented some basic information on the apostle John during his general audience on July 5 before leaving for his summer vacation in the Italian Alps, the Holy Father focused his catechesis on John’s teachings in the Gospel and the letters he wrote.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Before my summer vacation, I began
a series of small portraits of the Twelve Apostles. The apostles were Jesus’
friends and companions, and their journey with Jesus was not only an outward
journey from Galilee to
However, because they were Jesus’
companions and Jesus’ friends in a difficult journey where they learned about
faith, they also guide us and help us to know Jesus Christ, to love him and to
have faith in him. We have already spoken about four of the Twelve Apostles:
Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James the brother of
God Is Love
If there is one characteristic theme that emerges from John’s writings, it is love. It is for this reason that I wanted to begin my first encyclical (Deus Caritas Est) with the words of this apostle, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16). It is very difficult to find texts like this in other religions. Words such as these remind us that Christianity is truly distinct. Of course, John is not the only early Christian writer who speaks about love. Since this is an essential element of Christianity, all the New Testament writers speak about it although their emphases are different. The reason why we are now taking time to reflect on this theme in John is because he has laid out its principal characteristics in a way that is both insistent and incisive. Let us listen attentively, therefore, to his words. One thing is certain: He does not speak in some abstract, philosophical or even theological way about what is love. He is not a theoretician. Indeed, true love is never simply something speculative; it refers to real people in a way that is direct and concrete and that can be verified. John, as Jesus’ friend and apostle, reveals to us the different components — perhaps phases is a better word — of Christian love, which is a movement that is characterized by three stages.
The first stage concerns the source of love, which the apostle John identifies as God, coming to the conclusion — as we have heard — that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). John is the only New Testament author who gives us some kind of definition of God. For example, he says that “God is Spirit” (John 4:24) and that “God is light” (1 John 1:5). Here, with brilliant insight, he proclaims that “God is love.” Note that he does not simply say that “God loves” and neither does he say that “love is God!” In other words, John does not limit himself to a description of the way in which God works, but he goes to the very roots. Moreover, he does not intend to attribute a divine quality to a love that is generic or even impersonal. His point of departure is not love for God; rather, he turns directly to God in order to define his nature through the infinite dimension of love. By doing so, John is telling us that the essential element of God is love and, therefore, all of God’s activity is generated out of love and is imbued with love: everything that God does is done out of love and with love, even if we cannot always understand right away that this is love, genuine love.
God’s Gift of His Son
At this point, however, we must
take another step and make it clear that God has concretely manifested his love
by entering into the history of mankind through the person of Jesus Christ, who
was born, who died and who has risen for us. This is the second stage that
constitutes God’s love. He did not limit himself merely to words; rather, we
can say, he truly made a commitment and “paid” for it personally, as John
wrote: “For God so loved the world (that is to say, all of us) that he gave his
only Son” (John 3:16). From now on, God’s love for mankind has been made
concrete and is manifested in Jesus’ love. Because of this total and
sacrificial love, we have been ransomed from sin in a radical way, as
A Call to Love
This question brings us to the third stage of this dynamic of love: As recipients of a love that has preceded us and that surpasses us, we are called to make an active response, which, in order to be an adequate response, can only be a response of love. John speaks about a “commandment.” He is referring to Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34). What is this new thing that Jesus is referring to?
It lies in the fact that he is not satisfied with repeating what the Old Testament requested of us, which we also read in the other gospels: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; see Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:29-31; Luke10:27). In the old law, the criteria prescribed were based upon man (“as yourself”), while in the law that John refers to, Jesus presents his very person as the reason and the standard for our love: “As I have loved you.” In this way, love becomes truly Christian and contains therein the originality of Christianity, both in the sense that it must be directed towards all people without distinction and especially in the degree to which it must have extreme consequences, not having any other measure than being without measure. Jesus’ words, “As I have loved you,” are an invitation to us and, at the same time, they disturb us; they represent a Christ-centered goal that might appear unattainable, yet, at the same time, they act as a stimulus, not allowing us to be content with what we have been able to achieve. They do not allow us to be satisfied with how we are, but spur us on in our journey towards this goal.
In this regard, that little book from the late medieval period called The Imitation of Christ, one of the golden texts of spirituality, tells us the following: “The noble love of Jesus spurs us to do great deeds and excites a longing for that which is more perfect. Love tends upward; it will not be held down by anything low. Love wishes to be free and estranged from all worldly affections … for love has its origin in God and so it can only find its rest in God, who is above all created things. The one who loves flies, runs, and rejoices; he is free and is not bound. He gives all for all and possesses all in all, because he rests in the one who is great and who is above all things, from whom every good flows and proceeds” (Book III, chapter 5). What better commentary is there on the “new commandment” that John articulated? Let us pray to the Father that we will experience it as intensely — even if in an imperfect way — so that we will convey it to all those we meet on our journey.