The gift of a new command: the law of Charity
“Love one another”. This command given to us by Christ is the “Magna Carta” of the People who, born from his pierced chest, are transformed by Love. Christ’s charity pushes us not only to acts of love, but also to a life of Charity in Him.
Unfortunately in ordinary speech and writing the meaning of the word “love”, giver of life, is diminished to that of a sentiment of sweet goodness or of a passion, often sexual. In the Gospel the word love is always characterized by the cross, which indicates a passionate goodness whose aim is not the “possession,” but the gift of oneself to the other person. When Christ says, “I love you”, the cross is included. He means the cross, the passionate gift of his own life. Doing so He shows us that pure and sincere love is a love that gives oneself freely.
Christ reveals his love in a passionate way: with his Passion and Death on the Cross. The love that Christ reveals and proposes with a “command” is told with delicate words and with the act of going to the Cross after having demonstrated it with the washing of the feet, the institution of the Eucharist, which fortifies and makes love stable, and many fraternal teachings.
Many times we have read and listened to the sentence of today’s Roman liturgy gospel: “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I’ve loved you” (Jn 13:33). To help our meditation I’d like to propose as a foreword a synthetic explanation of the terms.
First of all we must remember that for the Evangelist John, the term “commandment” means the word that reveals the love of God the Father. In the Greek text, he uses the word “entole’ ” that means precept, advise, instruction and prescription. It is like the prescription that a physician writes to get the medicine needed to cure an illness. It is up to the patient to follow or not to follow what it prescribes. In this case a command is not a peremptory order or something we must do. The countercheck that this is the meaning that John wants to give to the word commandment is in his gospel where, to define Moses commandments, he doesn’t use entole’ but nomos. To follow and to serve Christ we don’t need nomos. Our relationship with God is much more than to follow some rules even if they are good. God has given us commands (entole’) that guide us, shape us and takes us on His path, indications that manifest His willingness of salvation.
In fact the word used by John is in relationship not only to the field of law, but also to that of responsibility. Jesus doesn’t indicate a rule, but on the contrary he reveals a mission of salvation and calls to responsibility. The Latin translation is correct and puts ” mandatum novum” which comes from mittere=to send. Jesus invites the disciples of that time as well as the disciples of today to practice this mandate and to create this mutual charity. He then says, “The world will see that you are my disciples.” The World will see that the Gospel is alive and “in force” (of the law we say that it is in force) if we will be friends and brothers and sisters to each other. The miracle of the first centuries of Christian life, testified by Tertullian who wrote that the pagans were amazed and observed, “Look how they love one another; look how big love is among them” ( Apol. 19), will then be renewed.
This love “commanded” by Christ has two characteristics indicated by “new” and” how”.
Jesus defines “new” the command of a reciprocal and fraternal love. It is not only a chronological novelty, but also a qualitative one. The command of love is new in the same way Jesus is new. He is the new Moses that writes the law of love not on stone, but in our heart. The reciprocal, fraternal and free love is the novelty of God’s life that bursts into our old world and renews it. It is the anticipation of the eternal life for which we all aim.
The gift of a command that invites to love without measure.
The Greek adverb “kathos” used in today’s Roman liturgy Gospel is translated with the term as: “Love one another as I’ve loved you”. How to understand this as? Should the disciples imitate the Master’s behavior? This would be reductive because we would make Jesus somebody of the past from whom to inherit some orders to fulfill, so that the disciples’ actions perpetuates in time the one of Jesus. On the contrary we can give a more profound interpretation. In this context kathos doesn’t have the meaning of a similitude but that one of an origin. It can be translated to “With the love I’ve loved you, love one another,” which is the translation more pertinent to the meaning of the written text. The love of the Son for his disciples produces their movement of charity; it is His love, the love of Christ that goes through them when they love their brothers and receive love back.
It is the love with which Jesus loves every man that makes fraternity possible and pushes every Christian community to commit to it. It is a love always new, always free and deep like the alliance that in loving humanity and the world God manifests. (Jn 3:6, Ez 34-37, Jer 31:31).
To love one another with Christ’s heart: this is the new command. If the measure of the charity of the Redeemer is to love without measure (Saint Bernard of Clairveaux De diligendo Deo , 16) how can we be up to Christ’s love? It is an unequal task. Christ has loved completely to the point of giving his life. How can we do the same? He has given his life for us and had a thief as first companion in paradise. Christ’s love is a love where the other person comes before oneself.
How it is possible to have and to live this love. We must surrender to this love. If we accept to be totally his, as the prophet Jeremiah had understood: ” My God you have seduced me and I let myself to be seduced”, we will be his sons forever. The Love that chose us from the moment in which He made us, calls us to be the shoots that adhere to the vine and produce the fruits of true life for the others.
Acts 14:21b-27, Ps 145 ;Rev 21: 1-5a; Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35
Monsignor Francesco Follo is permanent observer of the Holy See to UNESCO, Paris.