Loving God and Our Neighbor
Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.
First, I need to make a disclaimer: I am definitely not further along on the journey to understanding love or learning how to love than others. But this reflection has been a good spiritual exercise for myself as I’ve prepared for Great Lent.
As I thought about and read about God’s love for us, our love for God and our love of neighbor, it struck me that this is a “chicken or the egg” situation. Which comes first? Obviously, God’s love for us comes first and enables us to love. But our ability to love God and others IS a chicken or the egg; Do we love others or do we love God first? How do we learn to love? How do we grow in love?
First, how do we love God? I remember a skit from my youth group days. “Newlyweds” sit close together on two chairs, completely enthralled with one other, and while the bridegroom drives, the bride gushes about how much she loves him and how they will ALWAYS be as close as they are at this moment. Scene 2, she moves her chair a little away as she is uncomfortable during pregnancy. Then later, further away, as she turns around to scold the kids in the backseat. The last scene, they are empty nesters, their seats are far apart, and the wife wonders, “How did we get so far apart?” Her husband’s reply from the driver’s seat--God’s reply to us as His bride: “I never moved.”
God’s love for us is constant and unchanging; before the Great Entrance, the priest’s prayer appeals to God’s ineffable and immeasurable love for us, and we end the second antiphon with “You are a good and loving God.” Yes, it is we who become distracted and move away from Him. Throughout the liturgy we are reminded of His love for us, which allows us to come before Him, to set aside distractions and draw closer to our heavenly Bridegroom. We hear God’s call as the psalmist did: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). “Laying aside all earthly cares” is our commitment and goal every time we sing the Cherubic Hymn, to let go of all that stands in the way of truly receiving “the King of all.” One of the best texts I know on the subject of love is St. Maximos the Confessor’s 400 Chapters on Love. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds, more like “400 paragraphs on love.” One writer said it makes a case for salvation and spiritual survival. As St. Paul says, “Only faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the key to salvation and spiritual survival. [pause] If we don’t “get this right,” we are far, far away from God.
So how do we “get it right?” St. Maximos says, “The obstacles that lie within us—thoughts and passions— can eventually take control of our lives and drive away God from our lives. Dispassion is the only pathway to God’s love. . . Stop pleasing yourself and you will not hate your brother; stop loving yourself and you will love God.” This turning away from an unhealthy ego that seeks self-gratification and instead, looking outward to participate in God’s love for the world is the first step. Before the Holy Gospel, the priest prays, “Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds.” We are turning toward Christ’s example of self-emptying love in the Gospels. The prayer continues, “Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You.” Dwelling in the presence of God--in this light--means we examine how we live, recognize our passions, and take action through self control, what St. Maximos calls “active holy knowledge” that concentrates on the inner life. This is our path to loving God.
And what about loving others? Back in that youth group long ago, we sang a song that summed it up: “I am loved, therefore I can risk loving you.” When we are secure in being loved and knowing who we are in Christ, we are in a position of giving and not fearing. We can move to loving and understanding those outside ourselves. We can seek to know others and see them through God’s eyes. From the epistle of 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.” We affirm this before we recite the Creed, when we say, “Let us love one another” and exchange the kiss of peace. (or at least the bow of peace at this time ; -) This foundation of loving relationships and peace allows us to go on in our worship toward the culmination of receiving Holy Communion.
This love is for all and not based on favoritism or who has earned our respect, because it emanates from God’s love. And it does not only extend to our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church. St. Maximos writes, “Perfect love does not split up the single human nature, . . .but, fixing attention always on this single nature, it loves all men equally.” He then counsels how to imitate Christ’s love: confer blessings, be long-suffering and endure others, impute no evil to anyone. These are the three acts which manifest love for one’s neighbor, and especially in this divisive, stressful time in America, we must remember these three things. Let this be our guide: confer blessings. Be long-suffering, enduring others. Impute no evil to anyone. In the Anaphora, we ask God to remember "those who love us and those who hate us.” Our prayer is for all people.
This is not easy to do. How do we develop this love for others? We have all heard the scriptures of blessing those who curse us and turning the other cheek. We know we’re supposed to love our enemies, but . . . I for one have a hard time doing that. On this problem, St. Maximos says, “Do not be driven out of your state of love...maintain your affection. This is the way of Christ’s philosophy: if you do not follow it you do not share His company.” This struck me anew; if I persist in my fears and ego and resentment, if I do not allow God’s love to reach others through me, then I really do not have God dwelling in me. I am only that “noisy gong or clanging cymbal” of 1st Corinthians 13. THAT is sobering. At the closing of the Anaphora, we ask God to grant us His peace and His love. We cannot reflect His love on our own strength but only through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The movie Babette’s Feast is an amazing portrayal of Godly love, and if you haven’t seen it, I HIGHLY recommend it. Teva shared with me her curriculum on the movie as an icon of the Eucharist. The story is of a renowned French chef who flees war and seeks refuge in a small Danish religious group. We learn of the sacrifices the community has made for each other, in order to sustain its existence, but we also see their bitterness and deep-seated grudges against one another. Babette later wins a large sum in a French lottery and rather than use the winnings to return to France, she uses them to prepare one of her legendary feasts for the community. As the feast progresses, the food and wine (like the eucharist) bring healing and forgiveness to the community. While this imitates our liturgical experience every week, I think Forgiveness Vespers at the beginning of Great Lent is an even more powerful example of this. When they leave the feast, they gather around the town well and sing a hymn of hope and love. Their unity at the end is reflected in our liturgy: “Let us commit ourselves and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.” Our ability to love grows out of our acceptance of God’s love, and our commitment to imitate Christ in our relationships.
So is it the chicken or egg? After receiving God’s love for us, do we love God first or our neighbors? Our love for God is shown in our unity and our relationships. We can’t love our Lord apart from our neighbors. And loving others allows us to partake in the nature of Christ and thus love God. But if we don’t love God, can we reach out in love toward others? I don’t know the answer to this, but the first step is to let go of self. First, I must lose my “self”--literally--in God’s love for me, to allow His full and complete love to grow in me. Adapting the prayer of Mark 9:24, “Lord, I love. Help thou my lack of love.”