I had some notes written for a potential blog post way back in September, after the Sunday before the feast of the Holy Cross, which is already approaching again. So it’s high time I try to say something about it.
The Gospel contains the passage which is known to anyone who knows any passage of the Gospel at all: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Now I don’t mean to give yet another commentary on that passage, but I quote it here because it also turns up in the anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. It is that to which I now turn, to reflect on the love of God expressed in the giving of his Son. The text reads:
“With these blessed powers, O Master, Who love mankind, we too cry out and say: Holy are You—truly, all holy—You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. Holy are You—truly, all holy—and magnificent is Your glory. You so loved Your world that You gave Your only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. After He had come and fulfilled the whole divine plan for our sake, on the night He was given over—or rather, gave Himself for the life of the world—He took bread into His holy, most pure, and immaculate hands, gave thanks, blessed, sanctified and broke it. He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying…” [immediately come the words of institution of the Holy Eucharist]
The “blessed powers” mentioned in the beginning are the angels. This refers to the “Holy, holy, holy…” which was sung immediately before this. But what I want to reflect on here is the mystery of giving, of sacrificial giving, which is the essence of love. To love is to give, and nowhere is this more powerfully manifest than in the Father’s giving of his Son for our salvation, for He so loved the world.
It could hardly be clearer as we read that God so loved the world that He gave his Son. He loved, so He gave. And this giving came at a great cost: the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As in many great musical pieces, there comes a dissonance in this prayer that is quickly resolved. For we learn of a certain “giving” that has nothing to do with love: the “giving over” of Jesus to death by his betrayer. This was not an act of love but evidently a combination of avarice, cowardice, ambition, and perhaps a bit of misguided zeal intended to force Jesus to use his power against the oppressors of the Jews. This dissonance is resolved as the liturgical text “corrects” itself: “on the night He was given over—or rather, gave Himself for the life of the world…” So what was on one level a callous betrayal (the “giving over”) was transformed by the Lord into an act of the most profound love (He “gave Himself”). This is in perfect harmony with something Jesus said as He was predicting his Passion: “I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn. 10:15, 18).
So the greatest act of love ever made was the giving of the Son. The Father gave the Son—incarnate in the womb of Mary, and then sacrificed on the Cross—and Jesus gave Himself. This double and simultaneous giving—the Father giving Jesus, and Jesus giving Himself—found the response of all humanity in the Heart of Mary. She represented us when she said “yes” to God for the incarnation of the Son, and she offered Jesus to the Father on our behalf when she stood suffering with Him on Golgotha. Thus God’s divine love was met by the human love of Mary, representing us as a whole, even though many individual persons may not have loved God in return.
There is another most precious giving, one that expresses the love of the Lord in a unique and most intimate way, which mystically manifested the gift of our Redemption at the Last Supper and which makes perpetually present Him who said, “I am with you always.” So, on that night, before He gave Himself on the Cross, Jesus took bread, gave thanks—another giving, an offering of gratitude for all that Father would do through Him for his beloved people—blessed the bread, broke and sanctified it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body…”
The love which was manifested in God giving his Son to us as man in the incarnation, and in God giving his Son to us as the atoning sacrifice that would re-open the gates of paradise for all who would embrace Him through faith and baptism—this same love was manifested as Jesus gave Himself as spiritual food and drink to his disciples of all times and places. This most precious Gift is often called the Sacrament of Love, for it contains the essence of the sacrificial love of the Lord. Jesus’ Body and Blood are the fruits of our redemption, and blessed are those who are called to this mystical anticipation of the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb.
God gave his Son; Jesus gave Himself; He gave thanks as He gave his disciples bread and wine and transformed them into his sacrificed Body and Blood. There is no greater love than this.
One of the egregious failures in our mostly self-centered society is that people have forgotten that to love is to give. When you love someone, it is not supposed to be for your own self-fulfillment, pleasure, or happiness, though these may be among the fruits of love, but they must not be what are primarily sought. You love for the sake of the fulfillment, pleasure, and happiness of the other, and so you are concerned to give and not merely to receive. Jesus Himself said (quoted by Paul, though not found in the Gospels): “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
The last couple of generations have evidently been brought up to seek only what pleases themselves, to “love” only insofar as one finds it fulfilling, pleasurable, or otherwise beneficial to oneself. So we have skyrocketing divorce rates, the refusal of children through abortion and artificial contraception, the getting rid of burdensome elders through euthanasia. No one wants to give, no one wants to understand love as sacrifice, and so we seem to be entering into that prophesied age when “the love of most will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12). Everyone wants to be happy, but they don’t mind if it is at another’s expense. Everyone talks about love, but all too often it is nothing more than sin and selfishness.
If we want to learn about love, let us look to what God has done for us, to what Jesus has done for us—and still does through his abiding presence in the sacraments and in the depths of our souls. Let us look to the example of Our Lady and the Saints, and seek their help in learning how to love in a manner that pleases God. If we love God we will seek to please Him, even to the point of sacrifice. Jesus said that the one who loves Him is the one who keeps his commandments (Jn. 14:15, 21), not the one who merely seeks benefits for himself.
“Let us then love one another, for love is of God… He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest… that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins… If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments… let us love, not [merely] in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth” (1Jn. 4:7-11; 5:3; 3:18).