Lent begins this week on
At first blush, it is not apparent that there is a common thread for this morning’s readings. The epistle is Saint Paul’s beautiful celebration of the virtue of charity; which, of course, is the word that we use in Latin to translate the Greek word αγαπέ—agape—which means “love”—the sort where one is more concerned with the well being of the beloved than with any sort of personal gratification. The kind of love one might have for a child, a parent, or even a pet; and which ought to play a significant role also in the love of husband and wife. Saint Paul is extolling love, particularly in the sense of loving God—loving one’s neighbor because of the love of God—and the enjoyment of God’s love for us.
The Gospel itself seems a bit disjointed at first look. The first few sentences have our Lord prophesying about how He must go up to Jerusalem, and when He is there, the great messianic prophesies of the Old Testament will be fulfilled; they will put Him to death, but He will rise again on the third day. But. then, Saint Luke (the physician) seems to be distracted from the idea of our Lord’s crucifixion as his attention is occupied with the cure of a blind man along the road to Jericho.
With a little deeper analysis, however, it is not all that difficult to see that these readings do have a common theme in the love of God.
On a number of occasions, our Lord told the disciples that He would have to go to Jerusalem to be crucified. On every occasion that is recorded in the Gospels, it is clear that the disciples didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand) what He was telling them—or they (chiefly, Saint Peter) tried to persuade Him not to go to Jerusalem at all—“Lord, there just have to be better places for us to go, and better things to do!”
It was only on the night of the Last Supper—only hours before the events of His Crucifixion actually began to fall into place—that He sat down with them and gave them a more thorough explanation of what was soon to happen, and why. Saint John’s account of the Last Supper is something every Catholic ought to read once or twice every year. (Chapters 12 or 13, through 17.) Not only does it explain why Jesus was crucified, but it goes on to explain why the authentic Catholic Faith will always be more or less unpopular among the people of the world. It will remind us that any difficulties or persecution we may endure for the Faith is a sign that we are on the mark, following Christ rather than the world.
But one thing that our Lord said at that Last Supper, that is particularly germane to this discussion was this: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” With this one phrase, He explained what may be the greatest question ever contemplated by Catholic men and women: “Why did God become man—cur Deus homo?” to use the Latin phrase that has been used over the centuries. And, perhaps even more importantly: “Why would God, made man, go up to Jerusalem to get Himself crucified?”
The answer, quite simply, is that He loves us. All of creation was an outpouring of His love. Our redemption might be though of as a sort of “second outpouring” of His love in order to heal the poor creatures who had fallen from personal union with Him through the sin of Adam. Jesus the “Son of David,” Jesus the “Son of Man,” Jesus the “Son of God,” must go up to Jerusalem to pour out His love for us on the Cross if the possibility of eternal happiness with God in heaven is to be restored. Only then will it be possible for a “third outpouring,” in which God the Holy Ghost, the mutual love of the Father and the Son, will come to dwell in the souls of those who love Him in return.
If you have listened carefully, you just heard me make the distinction between “redemption” and “justification.” Both are necessary preludes to “salvation,” but all three of these terms differ in important ways. Because God loves all of His creatures, He sent His Son to redeem us—collectively, as it were, so that every man and woman became capable of receiving His graces. But, each one of us must respond to His graces individually, so that being justified by His grace, we may receive His Sacraments, living a spiritual life informed by the Holy Ghost, so that, eventually, we may work out our individual salvation, and join the angels and the saints in the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps, Saint Luke’s unexpected jump from the prediction of the crucifixion to the healing of the blind man represents this difference. God loves us all collectively, but He also loves us individually, and takes the time to call us out of the crowd for the personal attention we need.
But, finally, let us go back to Saint Paul and his beautiful epistle. For Paul speaks of love—or “charity” to use the traditional term—as one of the theological virtues. In their dictionary definitions, faith, hope, and charity are the virtues by which we believe in God and what he has revealed; by which we trust in God to give us the graces necessary for salvation if we but cooperate with them; and by which we love God and love our neighbor for His sake. But those definitions are somewhat bland—they miss a sort of interactive dynamic between the Giver and the recipient—particularly in the case of charity, for love must be mutual if it is to have any real substance to it.
We are about to begin Lent. And the Lenten season is best understood if we think of it as accompanying our Lord up to Jerusalem to share in His suffering on the Cross. Particularly as we get closer to Easter, the readings at Mass will narrate those events in detail. Throughout the season, keep in mind that the Lord’s journey was motivated by love—and that only by returning that love can we make the journey with Him.
“Love never fails.” All of the other things we acquire on earth will some day pass away. Even our faith will give way to the certain knowledge of God as we know Him in Himself; even our hope will give way to the security of eternal life which can never be taken away. But our charity will remain unchanged; the love of God for and by His creature, and the love of neighbor for the love of God.
“There abide faith, hope, and charity,