The Basic Figure of Love
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Whenever I hear this first reading from Ezekiel, I think of the role of the bishops of the Church. Bishops and their priests have a tremendous responsibility to warn the people. Certainly all of us have a grave responsibility to warn those in our lives who are choosing a life of sin; the first reading makes that clear, but Bishops and priests have a special responsibility. Bishops are shepherds, and their vocation is to watch out for wolves and carefully watch that the sheep are not lead astray. The Lord says to Ezekiel: "You I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, "O wicked one, you shall surely die," and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death". That's a serious warning to us.

Within the last 40 years, I think we've witnessed, in many parts of the Church throughout the world, a great deal of silence on the difficult parts of the gospel in particular, a silence often rationalized behind a veil of compassion. There's a lot of institutionalized evil in this culture, but we don't often hear it pointed out from the pulpits. Bishops like our own Archbishop Thomas Collins, Archbishop Charles Chaput who is now serving the diocese of Philadelphia, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, to name only three, are rare, and we're very blessed to have such shining lights in our midst. We have to pray that we be given more bishops like these men. Of course, I couldn't begin to express how blessed we are to have Benedict XVI as Christ's vicar.

But our culture does not take too kindly to prophets who very clearly and definitively give warning. In the Second Reading, Paul says: "Brothers and sisters: "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,' and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law."

This is such an important reading, because our culture has done a rather thorough job confusing so many of us about what it means to love. Everyone agrees that we should love one another, but few people seem to understand the concrete implications of love. What does love mean? Paul's letter provides a few boundaries: "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be,..." these are all summed up in the one saying: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself".

It is significant that Paul begins his outline with a sexual matter. That's obviously something people needed to have clarified for them right from the beginning. Adultery is inconsistent with love. To engage in the sex act outside of marriage is not loving. It is selfish, and selfishness is not consistent with love of neighbour.

I'd like to unpack this more. Marriage is a complete and mutual giving of the self to one another until death severs that union. To commit oneself to another until death, to promise to remain faithful to that total self-giving, especially during difficult times—and there are many difficult periods in a marriage--, requires a rather heroic ability to love—which is why most marriages today are failing. Because marriage is a one flesh union, it is consummated and expressed in the act of sexual union, in which the two actually become one body sexually, thus becoming reproductively one organism. If that act is not to be an outright lie, it must be the embodiment of a love that is undivided, and thus exclusive, and total, that is, until death. In short, a married love.

But our culture has been so influenced by the Individualism and Hedonism of the 60's that it no longer understands what marriage is, much less the meaning of the sexual act. Most people today think this life is about enjoyment. We're here to enjoy ourselves, to feel good, and if you believe marriage will make you feel good, get married—at least until it "gets old". If you don't think it will maximize your enjoyment, then don't get married. If a sexual relationship is what you want, without all the demands of a marital commitment, then that's your right. If you get pregnant and a baby is going to impede your ability to get the most out of life, then you have the right to have an abortion. After all, this life is about experiencing the maximum amount of enjoyment within the short time we are given. Sex has no other meaning than personal enjoyment, and marriage is regarded by many as an unnecessary restriction on this particular and very popular activity.

People are not, generally speaking, horrified by the destruction of unborn human life, and the Church's teaching against contraception makes about as much sense to the people of this culture as forbidding the taking of asprin—although this issue is a great deal more subtle, to be sure. The acceptability of active Euthanasia among the people of this culture is slowly becoming a majority, all because life is about enjoyment—and sickness is not enjoyable. Television has been lewd for decades now, but it is increasingly pornographic; censorship seems to be limited not so much to eliminating foul language--which is ever increasing--, but to bleeping it.

There's a reason Paul was inspired to begin with a commandment bearing upon the sexual. Sexual pleasure is particularly vehement for a reason: the survival of the species depends on it. But it is because of its vehemence that we need to take extra measures to control it. For the greatest enemy of supernatural charity is the inordinate love of self, and we carry the wounds of Original Sin, one of which is concupiscence, which is an inordinate desire for physical gratification. It is so easy to love another human being for what he or she does for me, and it is very difficult to love another person for his or her own sake. But this is precisely what we are called to in order to prepare for heaven: to love God for His sake, not for His gifts, and to love our neighbour for his or her sake alone, not for our sake. It takes a lifetime with many trials to cultivate the virtues necessary to achieve this. But we must learn it, because the self-centered would be very uncomfortable in heaven amongst the communion of saints.

Without even realizing it, we often love others for what they do for us. But the commandments are really the boundaries that clearly outline the basic figure of love of others. Without that outline, love will mean whatever we want it to mean, and it will no longer be possible to distinguish love from selfishness, which is the situation we find ourselves in today with respect to popular culture.

The first three commandments have to do with our relationship to God: Have no other gods before me (i.e., the god of self, or money, or power, or pleasure), do not take the Lord's name in vain, but revere it and live to glorify it; Keep holy the Sabbath day (get to Mass every single Sunday and feed on the Bread of Life). That's a commandment, not a recommendation nor an invitation that one is free to turn down as if one could have more important things to do.

The next seven commandments have to do with our neighbour. They come after because we simply cannot love our neighbour authentically unless we love God first. If we don't love God first, we will love our neighbour for our sake, on the basis of what he or she does for us.

The fist of the seven deals with our parents: honour them, forgive them, and do not hold resentment towards them. The next has to do with reverence for human life: every individual human person exists in the image and likeness of God and has an immeasurable value. To destroy human life in order that our lives may be easier is completely antithetical to everything Christ is. To remain indifferent to the plight of the starving in our world, to contribute to creating the conditions that cause poverty by indifference to the poor is to live in the darkness of sin. And if we revere human life, we will respect another's right to own property. We won't take what rightfully belongs to someone else, no matter how small it is. We won't take the sale sticker and place it on an item that is not on sale, and we'll let the cashier know when he or she has given us too much change. We won't allow ourselves to be tainted by envy. If we truly love our neighbour, we won't gossip, nor delight in the misfortunes of others. The pure of heart do not delight to hear bad news.

Popular culture has gone so far in deceiving itself by creating conditions that conceal its depravity from itself. It's amazing to hear of municipalities deciding to take down public monuments with the Ten Commandments written on them, all in the name of respect for cultural diversity. The irony of course is that when you study other cultures throughout history, what is striking are how similar their moralities are to one another, and that's all because there is only one natural moral law, and the commandments outline the basic principles of the natural moral law.

Because this culture cannot tolerate the sight of its own depravity, it has invented a new morality, enshrined in a political correctness. And so, sexual permissiveness now becomes disguised as tolerance for diversity. Concern for the environment is a good thing in itself, but it has become so accentuated that our achievements in this area have allowed us to feel self-satisfied and righteous. The New Age has become the new religion, and this is a religion without the demands of personal reform; it is a religion geared towards personal financial success and physical health; a religion of the self. A great deal of immorality is allowed to continue under the cover of cleanliness. It should remind us of what Jesus said to the Pharisees: "You are whitewashed tombs full of the bones of dead men". Corruption under the guise of cleanliness and respectability.

The Lord calls us out of this deception. He calls us to true freedom; He calls us to joy, to holiness, to die to self. The responsorial psalm says: "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts." Why? Because today might be the only day He allows you the extraordinary grace to hear His voice. He does not owe us graced moments. His calling us out of darkness into His light is sheer gift, entirely gratuitous. And if He chooses today to call you in the depths of your conscience, it is a dangerous thing to harden your heart in a spirit of pride, because that might be your only window.

This life is not about enjoyment or pleasure; it is about joy. This life is about preparing for the eternal banquet that the king will give in honor of his Son, Jesus Christ, the complete figure of love. And we prepare by growing in moral integrity, by cultivating the virtues, especially the unpopular virtues, like chastity, temperance with respect to food, drink, rest, entertainment, the desire for new and exhilarating experiences, etc, in order to cultivate the various parts of justice, such as generosity, caring for the sick and the suffering, thoughtfulness, gratitude, religion, love of parents and country, devotion to the common good, etc. If we hear Him calling, it is a gift, and we should respond not in anger, but in a spirit of gratitude.