|Date:||October 30-31, 2021, Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B|
"Oh my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch, a long lonely time"
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God is one. There is none beside him. Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." As we heard in the first reading, Jesus is not saying anything strange to his listeners. The first great commandment from Deuteronomy was written on a scroll and attached to the door post of every devout Jew. The second great commandment was from Leviticus 19. What was new to Jesus was his linking them together, revealing that they were two sides of the same coin.
The great commandments. I wonder how many of you react to the word commandments positively. To very many people, commandment or its cognate mandate are negative concepts. It is a rule that restricts me from doing something I might want to do or a requirement that I do something I don't particularly want to. I think the image that most people have of organized religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, is linked to this negative understanding of commandment. Religion is out to take the fun out of our lives by making us obey the commandments!
The Hebrew word we hear translated as commandment in today's readings is mitzvah which is derived from another Hebrew word that means connection. I would suggest to you that the obligation to respond to or obey the two great commandments has almost the opposite meaning from our common understanding of commandment. It is much more like the idea expressed in that line from Unchained Melody that I sang at the beginning. They are not things imposed on us but things that flow naturally from a connection, from a loving relationship.
I want you to imagine with me several different situations where love is a natural response. First, imagine a young married couple separated when the wife volunteers to go to another state to provide medical care for COVID patients during the height of the pandemic. Now imagine after 8 or 9 months of separation, she is finally able to come back home. As she comes down the steps from the arrival gate, and she and her husband see each other face to face for the first time in so long, what is the emotion of love that they are feeling for one another?
Imagine a little boy lost in the woods for several hours, maybe even overnight. What is the feeling of love that the parents experience when they finally find their child? What is that child's feeling of love when he catches first sight of his parents?
Finally, imagine a family loses its house and most of its possessions through a fire, and their community comes to their aid with housing, food, clothing, and most of all friendship and support in their time of trial. What is the feeling of love that that family has towards their friends and neighbors?
As many of you know, Unchained Melody was the wedding song that Betsy and I chose for our first dance at our wedding. The song starts out with those lyrics: "O my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch." I think you would agree that these lyrics are a pretty good description of the feeling of love in those situations we imagined. This is a very natural and human reaction. We would probably think someone in such a situation who did not hunger for or with love to be less than normal. There is no need for a commandment of love to evoke those responses.
Yet how many of us would describe our love of God and neighbor as matching in intensity the love in those situations? I mean if we really understood that God has given us life out of an intense love for us, that God is with us in our triumphs and disasters to give us what we truly need, that God loves us and forgives us no matter what we do, and that our ultimate destiny is true happiness for eternity with God, by the very way we are built as human beings wouldn't we love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds,and strength? So why do we need commandments?
I look at commandments as a series of roadmaps or insights about how we are built. When I first fell in love with my wife Betsy, I didn't go looking for rules or commandments that would tell me how to respond to her initial expressions of love for me. But just because I was in love with her and wanted to make her happy did not guarantee that everything I thought would make her happy actually did. Over the years I have learned a good deal about what makes Betsy happy (and therefore makes me happy), and I'm not finished yet. I have learned from Betsy herself, from friends, from books on marriage and psychology, and many other sources.
A lot of the things I learned meant I had to change, which is something I don't like to do any more than any one else. But because I am in love with Betsy, I eventually come around to changing because I know that I will be happier for it as well. I change because I know that it will make Betsy happy and therefore I will be a better, happier, more fulfilled person for it in the long run.
As Christians we are commanded to be in love with God and each other. If we know who God is and how God loves us, we would look on all the commandments, the law, the beatitudes, and all the wisdom of the Church as sources that help us to understand how to make God happy. And we would want to make God happy because we would understand that that is what would make us happy and fulfilled. Just as falling in love with Betsy did not infuse me with instant knowledge of how to please her, loving God does not mean that we magically know how to act in a way that pleases God. The guidance of scripture and tradition is a proven help to learning how to love God and one another so that we might be fulfilled in that love.
Some times we find how to love God by loving our neighbor, and sometimes we find how to love our neighbor by loving God. They are two sides of the same coin. What is important is that we love, that we hunger for that love in a way that changes our lives. God fashioned each one of us out of love. God is with us in love as hope in our struggles in this world. And love is our fulfillment in eternity with God. That is how we are built. If we really look at our lives, then you and I know that acting out of anything but love hurts us because we are not built that way. Jesus commands us to act out our reason for existence.
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God is one. There is none beside him. Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." With a love that hungers for their touch. Because that is how God loves us.