‘Paul and Barnabas put fresh heart into the disciples, encouraging them to persevere in the faith(Acts 14:22).’
What Saints Paul and Barnabas did in the early days of the Church continues on in our day. Each Sunday we come to Mass to have fresh heart put into us, and to receive encouragement to persevere in the faith. Every celebration of the Holy Eucharist gives us cause for fresh heart. So in a special way do the 50 days of the Easter season.
Today, in order to put fresh heart into us, and to encourage us to persevere in the faith, the Church invites us to hear again in our Gospel reading Jesus’ new Commandment of love. Our passage is taken from the beginning of the Last Supper Discourse according to St. John. Each year, on the 5th, 6th and 7th Sundays of Eastertide, we have readings from this long discourse. Even though the original setting is the eve of the Passion, it’s entirely appropriate that we read the sublime parting words of Jesus now, in the light of Easter. For as he speaks, Jesus looks with serene gaze through the events of his imminent betrayal, passion and death, towards his Resurrection, and towards the sending of the Holy Spirit, and the establishment of his Church.
‘I give you a new commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you.’
A new commandment: a new law, a new revelation, a new gift, a new vocation, a new dignity, a new life. To love as Jesus has loved us! Nothing could be further removed from the bland and sentimental platitudes of conventional morality. We might on the contrary feel bewildered, even terrified by such a command, so apparently impossible for us to fulfil. How can we be expected to love one another with the divine love of Jesus? How can we love even the sinner while he continues to sin? How can we endlessly forgive? How can we limitlessly return good for evil? How can we renounce and sacrifice our self, even to the extent of laying down our life for our brethren?
That is how Jesus has loved us. If ever we are tempted to doubt it, we have only to look once again at the Cross. There we see the love of Jesus for us, for me, most perfectly expressed, displayed, made active. And when we look at the Cross, we see also the answer to our question How? From the Cross poured out the cleansing blood of Jesus, which washes away our sins; which frees us from everything in us that is opposed to divine love. And from the open side of Jesus on the Cross there also poured out the Holy Spirit, divine love in Person, in whom we are baptised, drenched, set alight, transformed, lifted up, divinised.
‘My little children, I shall not be with you much longer. The departure of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, and the new commandment of love all go together. Once Jesus has accomplished his mystery, his death and resurrection; once the Holy Spirit has been poured out, then his disciples will be able to love with the very love of Jesus Christ. Love one another, just as I have loved you.’
Jesus does not leave us with a burdensome or even impossible duty, imposed, as it were, from outside. His parting gift is an inward power, his own living presence in us, according to which we are truly able to love as he loves; to love with his own love at work within us.
Of course we have freely to cooperate with this, and of course our receptivity to the inward working of the Holy Spirit admits of degrees. So we are not too surprised if many Christians seem to fall short here. To live fully in accordance with this astonishing command of Jesus demands everything. We must die to self. We must be completely generous in self gift. We must also have the habit of continual prayer. For just as Jesus was permanently aware of his Father’s love for him, and mediated that to the world, so we have to be permanently aware of the love of Jesus for us, and so be able to pass it on to others. Clearly, then, only those will attain this in its perfection, who attain also a high degree of holiness; who become conformed in all things to Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we are tempted to think that this is all a bit too much for us. But transformation in the love of Christ is also our liberation, and our glory. In his first letter (2:8) St. John speaks of how hatred plunges a person into darkness, whereas a life of love leads us ever more into the light. So we can apply the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel about his own glory to ourselves. Lit up from within by Christ’s love, by the ever active and efficacious power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we become glorified, and we are able to give glory to God. We are glorified in that we already possess the eternal life which will be our destiny in heaven. We give God glory in that we live turned towards him, as Jesus was, in never ceasing worship, and obedience, and love.
In order that the new commandment, and our ability to live it, may ever be renewed, Jesus left us the Holy Eucharist, the love feast of his Church. Here he pours out on us, in all its abundance, his human and divine love. Here we signify and effect our loving unity in the Body of Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, with one another, and with the whole Catholic Church. And here we discover that the new Commandment of Jesus is actually not difficult at all, but easy. What we receive, what we are given, will simply work itself out in our lives in this way: if only we allow it.