Today's epistle and Gospel both speak of love of God and love of neighbor, but it seems useful to examine the way in which they approach the same idea from two different perspectives.
He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.
Ordinary of the Mass
If we examine the Gospel first, we encounter a point of view that is not unique to our Lord, nor to the lawyer who came to question Him. The phrase about loving God comes from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.” The love of neighbor comes from the book of Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy friend as thyself. I am the Lord.” as it is given in the Latin Vulgate and Douay-Rheims translations Most modern Bibles, like the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine text, substitute “neighbor” for “friend,” for this is what is found most commonly in the New Testament. The idea in combining them is that we must love God above all, with every aspect of our being, for every good thing that we have comes from God. And then, if we truly love God, we will love His creatures, and especially our fellow human creatures, whom He loved deeply enough to give His life for them on the Cross.
In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we see the love of God and man more from the point of view of enlightened self interest. If, with “humility and meekness” we “preserve the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace,” “bearing with one another in love,” we will form the kind of society that is most conducive to a good life on Earth in preparation for eternity in Heaven. This is the sort of society in which neighbors selflessly pitch in to build and repair each others' homes and barns and sheds; where neighbors look after each others' needs in sickness and in health; where labor is divided so that the blacksmith doesn't have to make his own shoes; the cobbler doesn't have to make his own bread; the baker doesn't have to make his own candles; the chandler makes no clothes; the tailor makes no hardware—where everyone has what he needs because everyone does what he does best; where no one is envious if a neighbor prospers due to skill and hard work. This is the sort of society where everyone has a genuine concern for his neighbors, keeping them in his prayers, and asking God to protect and guide them. It is a Christian community in which both the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy are abundantly provided for anyone an everyone who needs them.
But it is important to understand that there is more to our salvation than living in this ideal Christian community. Men and women are saved as individuals, and not simply because they are members of a pleasant society. Yes, our Lord died to redeem the entire human race, but that just made us eligible to live life with God on earth in order to live with Him in eternity. Life in a Christian community is helpful in that it provides the conditions under which can live the spiritual life with relative ease—but we must still choose to live that life.
So, on some, level, we must return to the model presented in the Gospel—the model of loving God with our entire being, and of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Now, sometimes, you will hear people say that they find it difficult to love God, for He is rather remote, and not a part of our tangible experience—not like any person whom we might love. Of course, what they are saying is that they have not gotten to know God well enough to love Him. And, of course, it is impossible to love something ore someone whom you do not know.
How do we know God? The answer to that varies somewhat from person to person. If we ask a dozen people how they came to know God, we will probably get a dozen stories. Often it depends upon how our families introduced us to Him. But no matter how the story goes, there are always a number of common elements.
From the philosophical point of view, we know God from the works of His creation. We look up and we see the grandeur of the stars and the rhythm of the days, the months and the seasons. We look down and discover the ordered complexity of life around us. Some even look down into their own souls, where they discover a creature that is far more than the sum of their material parts. The philosopher recognizes that the motion, causality, and order in the universe require a First Mover, First Cause, and an Intelligent Designer—and this, of course, is called “God” in our language. The philosophical point of view is good and useful, for it gives a logical structure to our knowledge of God—but rarely is it the way that people have their first experience of God.
For most people the first introduction to God is in prayer. (Actually, it is in Baptism, but that doesn't bring a great deal of tangible knowledge to a child—we will get back to the Sacraments in a minute or two.) When a child is a few years old, Catholic parents will teach him to pray: to make the Sign of the Cross, to recite the Hail Mary, the Glory be, and the Our Father. The child may begin to take part in the family Rosary, which is excellent, not only as prayer but as a simple tutorial about the roles of Jesus and Mary in our salvation. Very often the child will be told to call on Jesus, Mary, and the saints in times of fear or need. He will probably be told of the need to ask God to provide the needs of the family and those connected to it: “God bless Mommie and Daddy, God bless sister Sue and Uncle Frank.”
As the child matures, he may be exposed to the Scriptures, or at least to a “Bible Story” version of the Scriptures. It is essential that we learn about Adam and Eve and the concept of sin. It is inspiring to read how God involved Himself in the lives of His people, delivering them from bondage in Egypt, protecting them for forty years wandering in the desert, and finally ushering them into a promised land of “milk and honey”—and let's not forget His giving them the Commandments during that journey—the Creator's instructions, so that they would know how He expected them to live with Him and with each other. It is essential that we read about Jesus and the Holy Family to flesh out what we learn in the mysteries of the Rosary. Parents would do well to make sure their children hear the Gospels as they are read throughout the liturgical year—at home if it is not possible to hear them in church. In modern times we are fortunate in being able to obtain good biblical movies to play at home. One cannot emphasize too much the importance of being familiar with the Scriptures and the Life of Christ.
The Catechism is an important compendium of the things God has revealed to us about Himself, and of the way in which He wants us to behave. All of our young people should have the opportunity to become thoroughly familiar with it.
We personally encounter God in the Mass and Sacraments. Jesus Christ dwells in the tabernacle on our altar. We stand with Him at the foot of the Cross every time Mass is offered. We are physically united with Him in Holy Communion. He forgives our sins when we make a good Confession. All of the Sacraments assist us with grace to live the spiritual life with God. All of them strengthen us in Faith, Hope, and Charity. Baptism may not, of itself, give us a great deal of tangible knowledge of God, but through Faith it predisposes us to learn about God and to believe what He has revealed about Himself—and Charity (or Caritas) disposes us to love the God whom we come to know.
Finally, the Church gives us the opportunity to practice those spiritual and corporal works of mercy in which we demonstrate the love of our neighbors because we love God who created them.
Now I purposefully outlined these steps in getting to know God from the standpoint of children. But if you came to the Faith later in life, you may need to take some of the steps that your parents would have taken for you: to learn the prayers, to read the Scriptures, to read the catechism, to frequent the Mass and Sacraments—indeed, even if you had a fine Catholic upbringing, these are things that ought to continue in adult life.
In order that we can be part of that Christian community; in order to love God and our neighbor as our self, we must spend a lifetime learning to know God to the best of our ability.