Many times the last thing a person says before he or she is dying takes on a very special significance. It is as if the very essence of that individual is somehow summed up and compacted into a single message.
I imagine this is how the earliest disciples felt about the words that are in our reading of the day. They were all at table with Jesus, and the impending crisis that would take his life loomed ahead of them inescapably. And then came those final, poignant words, "A new commandment I give to you; love one another. As I have loved you, you are to love one another." This will become your unique signature in the world, the way folks will sense your true identity, your essence. This will be your ultimate reason for being.
There is actually nothing original or brand new in these words. The commandment to love one another goes back much, much further than Jesus himself. It is one of the themes that is cited again and again all through the Old Testament. And Jesus had certainly repeated those words again and again as he walked the ways of the earth during the days of his flesh. What, then, was the special nuance that made this final mandate so special and so memorable, as it is, right down to this very moment?
I believe it was that qualifying phrase that Jesus added to these words, "Love one another." He made it quite specific by saying that they were to love one another as I have loved you. In other words, the unique way that Jesus had incarnated that ancient ideal was to become the pattern of how the disciples, and that includes us, were to love one another. Here is one of those places where the famous imitation of Christ's ideal got its origin, and it raises the seminal question, "Exactly how did this one, who became what we are so we could understand more fully who God is, actually and realistically love?"
St. Augustine has given me two clues to such a question. He once observed that Jesus loved each one he had ever met as if there were none other in all the world to love. In other words, Jesus radically individualized the affection he acted out toward others. Instead of never seeing the trees for the forest, as the old adage goes, Jesus reversed that process and never failed to focus on the particular and the unique in each human being. This represents an extraordinary commitment and discipline, especially because, even in Jesus' day, he came in contact with many, many people and, therefore, must have found it tempting to lump people together in categories, in classes, and to allow the forest mentality to blind him to the genuine uniqueness of each human being. However, I do not think I am being totally naive to say that even though such an ideal is a tremendous, tremendous reach, it is within the possibility of everyone of us. Here is an aspiration to which I suggest all of us should commit ourselves and that is to grow in our capacity to individualize our loving energies. Now to be sure, only the Holy One can actualize this ideal completely.
I've always loved the little story about the boy who's trying to learn the Lord's Prayer, and one night as he knelt by his bed, these words came out:
Our Father, who are in heaven
How do you know my name?
Such individualized affection will always remain a mystery to us mortals, and at the same time, let us never forget we're made in the image of that extraordinary love. And doing what Jesus did in loving each one he ever met as if there were none other in all the world is at least an ideal toward which we can reach even if it always remains utterly beyond our complete grasp.
The second clue St. Augustine offers is that Jesus loved all as he loved each. The way he loved was not only individualized, but it was also incredibly universal. I do not know which of these qualities is more amazing, but, once again, the great saint's description remains true to the memories that we're given of Jesus in all four of the canonical gospels. Those eyes out of which he looked when he lived upon this earth were never filled with contempt or disdain. Even when the words Jesus spoke assumed a note of harshness, it was because of a concern that he felt for those whom he addressed. They were never words of hatred. We must never forget that the opposite of love is not anger or hostility but indifference. But there is not one example in all of the gospels of Jesus ever turning away from another as if what happened to that one made no difference to him. I find St. Augustine's words to be a wonderful description of that unique way that Jesus loved and invites us now to love also. He loved each one he ever met as if there were none other in all the world to love, and he loved all as he loved each.
As I have meditated on this extraordinary reality, I find myself agreeing with one of the most important things C.S. Lewis ever taught me. In one of his very last books, the profound English scholar examines all the famous Greek words for the concept of love and then concludes that at bottom they come down to one seminal distinction: the difference between what he calls "need love" and "gift love."
Need love, Lewis says, is always born of emptiness. It is basically inquisitive to the core. A need lover sees in every beloved object or person a value that he or she covets to possess. Need love moves out greedily to grasp and to appropriate for itself. If one were to diagram it, need love is always circular, reaching out to the beloved to transfer value back to itself. In a popular image, need love sucks essence out of another and into itself. It does not take exceptional imagination, Lewis contends, to acknowledge that many times when we humans say to another, "I love you," what we are really meaning is, "I need you, I want you. You have a value that I very much desire to make my own, no matter what the consequence may be to you."
Now over against this graphic image, Lewis contends there is another reality that is utterly different. It is what he calls gift love. Instead of being born of emptiness or lack, this form of loving is born of fullness. The goal of gift love is to enrich and enhance the beloved rather than to extract value. Gift love is like an arc, not a circle. It moves out to bless and to increase rather to acquire or to diminish. Gift love is more like a bountiful, artesian well that continues to overflow than a vacuum or a black hole. Lewis concludes this contrast by saying that the uniqueness of the biblical vision of reality is that God's love is gift love, not need love. And then he says, "We humans are made in the image of such everlasting and unconditional love." Lewis' depiction of gift love really is the foundation stone of the way St. Augustine describes the way Jesus loved. And the great good news for everyone of us to hear today is not only that we are loved by God in this marvelous way, but also that this is our deepest identity as well and is a way we can choose to live our lives.
The theologian Karl Barth once said, "Jesus is the name of our species, in relation to whom we are still subhuman but, nonetheless, called ultimately to become." Jesus would not have given us this new commandment if it had not been possible.
You and I, with the help of God's unfailing grace, can grow into the wonder of loving each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and loving all as we love each.