Two of the most used and abused words in the English language appear frequently in today’s readings, namely ‘new’ and ‘love’. If ever a word has been overworked by the commercial world, it is the word new. New suggests something different, never seen before and of course much better than the old which is now archaic and should be dumped long ago. And yet that old thing we are asked to discard was probably very new and state of the art last year. Yet the commercial world still uses the word new ad nauseam because we still fall for it, perhaps thinking that maybe this time it is much better.
The Book of Revelation uses the word new and genuinely hopes that we will fall for it. Furthermore, the author is not trying to con us. This time all the positives that the word new holds out for are indeed true. And it’s not just about a new brand of toothpaste or shaving cream or even a car. It’s a new heaven and a new earth. Not only that, it replaces the first heaven and the first earth. What we have here is a totally new world order, a new way of doing things. The old ways no longer obtain. All is novel, different and exciting. Of course there are hints elsewhere in Scripture that something radical is taking place. The whole mission of Jesus was to establish the Reign of God, where God, and not us, would be in control. What’s more, we have to change radically as well in order to step into this new world. Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the need to be born anew which again suggests that life, as he has lived it up to now, has to be cancelled out and he’s got to start all over again.
At the heart of this new world is a new kind of loving. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his apostles, “love one another.” If only he had stopped there! Then the commandment would have given us some room for manoeuvre. That’s because the word ‘love’ is so abstract and so overused that it is easy for us to water down its real meaning. Love, like charity, covers a multitude. We love our friends and families, our cars, our gadgets, our pets, Facebook, sports, time to chill out and, of course, the cell phone.
But Jesus just didn’t say, “love one another.” He added “as I have loved you.” Now that’s a different story. We only have to look at the gospels to see how Jesus really loved. The bar is very high and now there is very little room for manoeuvre. He loved patiently, unselfishly, inclusively, forgivingly, totally. And if that’s not enough he tells us to love our enemies and pray for them rather than hate them. Such was the extent of his love that he emptied himself, in the words of St. Paul, so as to become a servant of all. And don’t forget he had just done the servant thing by washing the feet of his disciples. In particular, Jesus loved people. His great book was the book of the people and again and again we find him mingling with the ordinary folk and sympathising with and having compassion on all who were oppressed and left behind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Jesus was ‘a man for others’. Yes, he was surely that.
Jesus gave very few commands to his disciples but he does exactly that in this case. He didn’t merely wish or encourage his disciples to love as he did. He commanded them to do so. This means that we are not simply called to love on a good day when all is hunky dory. Nor are there any exceptions like if I’m sick or poor, disadvantaged or underprivileged. To love as Jesus did is 24/7 and meant for all. It is an attitude, a permanent way of being and doing.
To us mere humans this kind of loving and continually emptying of ourselves is just about impossible. We can do it for a day or two, but for a lifetime, not really. Add to that our own weakness where the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak and we all have too many reminders of our flawed human nature. This, by the way, is not a bad place to be because this new world, this new heaven and earth, is not of our making. We can’t even imagine it!
The Book of Revelation tells us that the holy city, the New Jerusalem, comes down from God out of heaven. In other words, it is a gift from God. We don’t have to make it up from scratch. That should be a relief. Furthermore, God adorns this city as a beautiful bride all dressed for her husband. This is nuptial language, the language of love, the only language that can really bring about this transformation. For it is only when we fall in love with God, when we are in a state of love, that this can really take place.
A journalist once spent a day with Mother Teresa as she nursed the down and out on the streets of Calcutta. As she dressed the oozing wounds of one emaciated and bleeding old man the journalist was heard to say: ‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!’ Mother Teresa answered, ‘neither would I!’ But then added that she saw Jesus in every human person and that made all the difference.
The vision of the Book of Revelation may seem so far fetched and exotic that we are tempted to throw in the towel even before we start. Yet, the solution seems to be just as simple as that of Mother Teresa, namely, a matter of seeing Jesus in the face of every human being. The invitation is to put Jesus back into our relationships. Allow him to come alive in the love we have for our family network, our deep friendships, our care for the needy, and our care for the earth. Let us seek to know and love Jesus in the ten thousand places that he comes to visit us in each and every day.
Sunday, April 24, 2016