The Friendship of Christ
Sixth Sunday of Paschaltide B
1 John 4:7-10
Psalm 97: 1-4
Acts 10:25-26. 34-35.
May 21, 2006
Love alone can awaken love. Love is always a resurrection, a springing from death to life, a passage from solitude to communion, a calling forth from the chill darkness of the tomb into a warm and wonderful light. The Father’s love for us was revealed when He sent into the world His only-begotten Son (Jn 3:17) so that we could have life through Him. This is the love that is life-giving, not our love for God, but God’s love for us revealed in the friendship of Christ (1 Jn 4:10). “I have called you friends,” He says (Jn 15:15).
We have heard so many times that God loves us that we are in danger of being lullabyed into a religion of comfortable sentimentality, one that tucks us in with feather puffs. Institutionalized Christianity is all too easily subverted by the socially acceptable gospel of niceness, by a religion that finds the saccharine verses in greeting cards interchangeable with the hard, bracing words of the Gospel. A Catholicism that makes few demands on us, that offers a cheap consolation, and leaves us relatively untouched, unmoved, and undisturbed, is no Catholicism at all, certainly not the Catholicism of the apostles, the martyrs, and the mystics.
It is easy to forget that the revelation of God’s infinite love for us is something which burns, which pierces, which wounds, which sets us all ablaze. I am reminded of the words of a Franciscan poet of the thirteenth century:
Before I knew its power, I asked in prayer
For love of Christ, believing it was sweet;
I thought to breathe a calm and tranquil air,
On peaceful heights where tempests never beat.
Torment I find instead of sweetness there.
My heart is riven by the dreadful heat;
Of these strange things to treat
All words are vain;
By bliss I am slain,
And yet I live and move.
(Jacopone da Todi, Lauda 90)
This searing experience of Divine Love has nothing in common with the complacent, insipid sort of piety that so many confuse with authentic Christianity. This experience of the friendship of Christ is wounding; it has nothing in common with a friendship content with vague sentiments and the occasional nod to a conventional piety.
Today’s gospel is a passionate declaration of love on the part of God. It comes from the mouth of Jesus, the Father’s Eternal Word, the Friend and Lover of our souls. Like a flame, it leaps out of the blazing furnace of His Heart. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9).
How does the Father love the Son? The Father loves the Son infinitely, immeasurably, eternally, ineffably, from before the creation of the world unto the ages of ages. The Son is pure response to that love, equally perfect, equally eternal. So intense, so immense, so alive is the ebb and flow of love between the Father and the Son that it is their Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Love with which God the Father loves the Son. The Holy Spirit is the Love with which God the Son loves the Father. The Holy Spirit is the embrace of the Father and the Son, the Kiss of the Mouth of God.
Today, Christ says to us, “As the Father has loved me so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9). Christ’s love for us brings us created and finite human beings into the circle of God’s Trinitarian life, not as mere spectators, but as participants. Christ loves us with the same burning, boundless, love with which He Himself is loved by the Father. The seal of that love is the Holy Spirit. Jesus says to us, “Abide in my love” (Jn 15:9 ), which means, “Abide in my Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the seal of our friendship with Christ. “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15), and that you may grasp this, I give you my Holy Spirit, the Kiss of My Mouth.
The words of Jesus, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9) are completed by these other words, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Christ loves us with all the wideness of His mercy; He loves us with a love that cannot be measured. We, for our part, love selectively and cautiously. We have set ideas about who is lovable, and who is not; we have our own private criteria for determining who is worthy of our love, and who is not. We love narrowly, not widely. We exclude certain categories of people. We are reluctant to invest love in people too different from ourselves. Different race, different background, different religion. Different tastes, different culture, different appearance, different values, different politics. The lists could go on and on.
In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see Saint Peter’s capacity for love stretched and broadened by circumstances, and by the Holy Spirit. Peter’s change of heart takes place in three steps. In verse 28, Peter says, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Ac 10:28). In verse 35, he stretches a little more: “Truly, I perceive that God shows no partiality . . . . In every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Ac 10:35). Finally, in verse 47, his change of heart is complete: “These people, he says, have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Ac 10: 47). Peter begins to love people different from himself. Peter begins to love as Christ loves.
How can we, narrow-hearted sinners, wounded by life’s hurtsselfish, impatient, and limited how can we ever hope to love each other as Christ loves us? The point is, of course, that it is impossible. The realization that the Christian life is impossible is precisely what begins to make it possible. We cannot love one another as Christ has loved us, except by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not the optional Person of the Most Holy Trinity. Christ was conceived in the Virgin Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians are brought to birth in the bath of regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians are made, not by dint of their own efforts to love, but by “God’s love poured forth into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). The Holy Spirit is Christ’s first gift to those who believe. The Holy Spirit is fire, consuming our sins, cauterizing our wounds, purifying us of the selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and fear that thwart our best attempts to love as Christ loves.
The Holy Spirit dilates the hearts’ capacity for love. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to correspond to the friendship of Christ and to love as Christ loves by gracing us with His seven gifts. Tradition identifies them as wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. These gifts of the Holy Spirit make us capable of a bold love, an inventive love, a wise love, a sacrificial love. Thus what was impossible becomes possible. This is what we see and admire in the lives of the saints.
When we begin to rely on the Holy Spirit’s gifts more than on ourselves, fruits of the Holy Spirit begin to blossom, to develop, and to mature. The tradition of the Church, based on Saint Paul (Gal 5:22-23), lists twelve of them: “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity (CCC, 1832).
By the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, we are able to do what Jesus commands us. Without them, the Christian life is impossible. And if, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we do what Christ commands us, then we become more than the servants of Christ (Jn 15:15), we become, according to the desire of His Heart, His friends (Jn 15:15), His intimates, those with whom He is pleased to share everything He has heard from His Father (Jn 15:15), the secrets of His mercy, of His wisdom, of His love.
Jesus commissions us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will abide (Jn 15:16). The fruit we bear manifests the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the Church. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are dependent upon the Spirit’s seven gifts. The seven gifts themselves are grafted onto the virtues of faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues communicated by the Holy Spirit at Baptism and Confirmation. The same Holy Spirit is given us afresh in every Eucharist, overshadowing altar and assembly, descending to gather us into the circle of Trinitarian love, and into its earthly manifestation, the communion of the Church.
The liturgy begins to prepare us for Pentecost, inviting us to make ready our hearts for the breath of the risen Christ who says “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22). Prepare then for the “rush of a mighty wind” (Ac 2:2) and for “tongues as of fire” (Ac 2:3). Already, the liturgy invites us to lift our faces heavenward that we might receive anew the Kiss of the Mouth of God. Why not pray in the words of the Song of Songs, “O that you would kiss me with the kiss of your mouth” (Ct 1:2)?
In just a few moments, we will approach the Inexhaustible Chalice, if not by a movement of the feet, then by a movement of the heart by the vehemence of a holy desire that God will honour. He will not send the hungry away empty. The friendship of Christ is not paralyzed by the dullness of our bureaucracies and the impersonal strictures of a system that, at times, seems distant, faceless, and even heartless. Nothing can separate us from the friendship of Christ; nothing can come between those to whom He says, “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15) and the love revealed on His Face and in His pierced Heart. Receive the Eucharistic infusion of the Holy Spirit, if not in eating and drinking the Holy Mysteries, then by desiring them with a great desire. He who says, “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15), wants nothing but that “His joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (cf. Jn 15:11).