By Alyson Borowczyk
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” – John 13:34
This quote from the Gospel according to John is quoted frequently by Christians, and is often used against Christians by non-believers who claim that their Christian counterparts are “unloving” when they choose to not support the sinful behaviors of others. But what does this passage really mean? I think the key to understanding this lies in the phrase “as I have loved you.” Christ wants us to love one another as He loved us. How did Christ love us? Well, before we can put something together, we need to read the instructions, right? Luckily for us, Christ left us instructions in the Bible (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), on how He expects us to love.
We must look to Our Lord’s Passion as the ultimate example of how to love one another. Christ gave Himself completely to us – body, blood, soul, and divinity – when we did absolutely nothing to deserve it. In fact, it is because of our sins that Christ was crucified. That doesn’t matter to Him though, because he loves us unendingly, despite our sins. This type of sacrificial love is what is referred to in Greek as agape, and it is something we are all called to – it is how Christ loves us.
However, we need to dig a little deeper to truly understand the fullness of what Christ is calling us to do in John 13:34. What is agape? We know that it is completely self-giving, and is therefore by nature sacrificial. We also know it is the highest form of love achievable – the most perfect (of the Four Loves that C.S. Lewis describes in his work of the same name) because it is divine. So, is agape (loving as Christ loves) easy to achieve? No, it most certainly is not. The depth at which Christ loves can actually be frighteningly deep at times. Christ Himself even felt this way, as He began His Passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, as evidenced by Matthew 26:36-42:
“Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress.
Then he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.’
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.’
When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, ‘So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?
Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, ‘My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!'”
Jesus certainly was not thinking of Himself as He prayed to His Father in the Garden that evening. He was thinking of the souls who risked losing salvation. He knew what His role was, and even though it troubled Him to the point of imploring His Father to “let this cup pass” from Him, He qualified that statement by saying “yet, not as I will, but as you will.” Here, Jesus is teaching us that it is natural to fear the depths of this type of love – complete and total sacrifice of oneself is understandably difficult to grasp, especially since we, unlike Jesus, are not divine, and therefore can in no way perfectly unite ourselves to God’s Will as He did (The only other who was able to do this is Our Lady. Though the Blessed Virgin is not divine, she was able to perfectly unite her will to God’s through the divine grace given to her in the Immaculate Conception). However, despite our natural fear, we are called to trust in the Lord as Jesus did, and to strive to give completely of ourselves as Jesus did. Will we suffer? Yes, when one sacrifices oneself completely, suffering of one sort or another is inevitable, because we are separating ourselves for our own selfish will for our lives, and uniting ourselves to Christ’s cross. Even though it is natural to fear suffering, just as Christ’s Passion may be difficult to ponder because of its tremendous depth of suffering, there is beauty in it, because this type of suffering – suffering as a gift from God – bears much fruit. Give totally of yourself, and even though you may suffer, your suffering will bear much fruit before God. This is loving one another as Christ has loved us.
There is one last component of this passage that we’ve yet to explore, though it is intrinsically important to our discussion. When Jesus finds His disciples asleep, after He explicitly asked them to stay awake and watch with Him, he chastises Peter by saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” In other words, Jesus is saying that it’s easy to talk the talk, but much harder to walk the walk. We say we will love one another as Christ loves us; we quote this passage frequently by sharing stylishly-designed memes on social media; we proudly boast to others that we are Catholics whom have never once missed Sunday Mass. However, when we look at our lives, are we just talking about loving others the way Christ loved us, or are we truly living it? Are we giving ourselves completely to our brothers and sisters in need? Are we serving our spouses with the totality of our being, or are we holding back from them or using them for our own selfish ends? This does not mean being a pushover, or supporting someone’s sinful behavior – Christ Himself was not a pushover, and certainly didn’t condone sinful behavior (for more on this, please read the previous Monday Motivation post here). It does mean, however, sacrificing ourselves to do all that we can to lead others to eternal salvation. Christ shows us that we all have the ability to love, we just have to make the choice to do so – and we can’t let our fear hold us back.
It is impossible for us to do this alone. I encourage you to offer this prayer whenever suffering may become too hard to bear. Just keep in mind that He is, and always will be, with you.