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The essence of Christianity is love.


On January 25, 2006, Pope Benedict published his first encyclical entitled Deus caritas est--in English, God is love. Did the Pope think up this phrase on his own? Certainly not. He is quoting the Evangelist John who states, "God is love;" and who then continues, "He who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 Joan 4:16).

Is John's saying to be taken literally? A first reaction may well be negative in today's climate of agnostic secularism which seeks to marginalize the Church, to silence her, to restrict her activities, because she is seen as a threat. But then we remember that Jesus, too, was seen as a threat.

The Pope's comment is that the Church is not a structure seeking power; she does not prescribe how politics should be conducted; she does not run schools, or leper colonies, or hospitals, or clinics throughout the world in order to "proselytize."

She does all these things out of love, driven by God himself to express thereby the essence of His gift. As the Pope puts it: "Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends" (31c).

The idea of love as the essence of the Christian faith, and of a Pope writing about love, strikes some people as bizarre. George Stromboulopoulos of CBC's news magazine, The Hour, incredulously mocked: "How can a Pope talk about marriage; how can he write about love? He is celibate, what does he know about love?"

Pope Benedict kindly explains not only to us but also to George that there are different kinds of love: we speak of love of country, love of one's profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love between family members, love of neighbour, and love of God. But one stands out: love between man and woman.

The Pope refers to this by its Greek root "eros" (as we find it in such words as "eroticism"). This is a noble and necessary attraction that makes men and women marry one another.

Here he goes on to note that the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive, (S.5). "Eros, reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity."

This conception of love implies "a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere" (S. 17). In other words, he rejects the notion that love exclusively means sex.

What is to be done ? We may not--and cannot--eradicate eros. Therefore it must be supplemented with agape (pronounced ah-ga-pay), the Greek word for self-sacrificing love. Of this, Christ is our example and model.

"Love now becomes concern and care for others" (S.6).

The key to the understanding that "God is love" comes therefore through Jesus Christ. We are not asked to love abstractions; we do not love doctrines or moral principles. These are necessary but only as supports to keep us on the right track. What we love is not an abstraction but a person, the Lord Jesus, who died and yet is now alive.

The world of the Old Testament, the Pope notes, presents us "with a new image of God." As the people of Israel progress and distinguish themselves more and more from the surrounding pagan cultures, "the content of Israel's fundamental prayer, the Shema became increasingly clear and unequivocal: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord'" (Dt. 6:4). It means that all other gods are not God, and the universe in which we live has its source in God and was created by him" (S.9).

With the New Testament, "the real novelty," the Pope says, "lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ. Christ is our model for how we must act, as illustrated in the parables (the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep; the woman who lost a coin; the father who welcomes his prodigal son; the good Samaritan).

"By contemplating the pierced side of Jesus, we can understand the starting point: 'God is love' (1 John 4:8).... It is from there that our own definition of love must begin ... [and how] the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move" (S. 12).


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Author:De Valk, Alphonse
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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