Deus Caritas est: God is Love. How many times have we heard this simple yet profound theological truth in a homily, story, or teaching? How many times have we taken this for granted? In a world where truth often seems subjective, God’s love remains a refreshing and comforting constant in the Christian life. If this were not so, for what purpose, let alone by what means, would you or I exist? It is this perfect love of God which sustains us each and every moment of eternity. In fact, it’s God’s very nature, so bursting with love, that wills us into being. So too must our love for our neighbors guide and give purpose to our lives.
The liturgical season of Lent is an especially wonderful opportunity for us to reorient ourselves towards God’s love and mercy. As we prepare to celebrate the ultimate expression of love the world has ever known this liturgical season, we may give up something we fleetingly desire in order to be made more aware of our need to depend on the One Love, the True Love, the Infinite Love. Of course, we can do more throughout Lent, but take to heart the suggestion of my bishop:
[T]his Lent, fast and abstain when the Church requires it; give something up to make room for God and his mercy to fill you. Pray more and pray deeply and whenever you can because God listens to you: prayer puts you in touch with God and his mercy. Do something good for someone else every day; resolve to care about someone else every day, because God does, Jesus does and wants you to be like him, loving and full of mercy. Don’t make this Lent a complicated regimen of resolutions and promises that will unravel a week from now. Make it simple. Make it real. [emphasis added]
Lent is not a time of self-pity or bemoaning our spiritual shortcomings. To fail to acknowledge God’s willingness to have mercy and forgive the sinner of his or her faults places sin as the end without further hope of relief, restricts one’s view of God as having limits on his love, and risks committing a sin against the Holy Spirit (i.e. believing that the magnitude of a sin is greater than God’s power— and continuous willingness— to forgive [cf CCC 1864]). While Lent brings to mind the classic images of sackcloth and ashes, the Lord desires something much more personal than just the recognition of our sins—“sincere, heartfelt repentance, change of heart, conversion” is what each of us is called to offer the Lord with the same Love He offered to those He encountered in His earthly ministry and ultimately from the Cross.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” our Lord, echoing the words of the prophet Hosea, declares to the Pharisees during the calling of Matthew (cf. Hosea 6:6) For us today, these words still ring true. Lent is not an easy time, but it invites us to shake us out of our spiritual complacency if we are to answer the Lord’s call to conversion. This may be uncomfortable. Receiving the ashes on our foreheads tomorrow, however, signifies our commitment to God that we will endeavor each day—and not just until Easter Sunday—to change our lives to be (once again) oriented towards God in avoidance of the sin and distractions which lead us away from His love. While we seek forgiveness from God, we are also to freely forgive others, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Even if we fall along the way, the important thing is to pick ourselves up and start again— the Lord is patient!
In closing, let us reflect on a final word from the Venerable Fulton Sheen:
God loves you despite your unworthiness. It is His love which will make you better, rather than your betterment which will make Him love you. … Say to yourself over and over again, regardless of what happens: “God loves me!” And then add: “And I will try to love Him!” (Fulton Sheen, Remade for Happiness: Achieving Life’s Purpose through Spiritual Transformation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 187, 25.)
In Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family. The first part of the prayer reads, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love; to you we turn with trust.” In just those few words, we are reminded of the importance of the Holy Family; they are the perfect reflection of true love. They exemplify to us what it means to love God and one another.
Of course, it might be wise to first ask ourselves, “What is true love?” The dictionary defines it as a “strong affection for another” (Merriam-Webster). The author Victor Hugo once equated love to joy when he said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved” (Les Miserables). For our purposes, let us take the definition straight out of the Gospels, that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:18). True love, then, is self-sacrificial. Having true love does not mean that we live to seek the best for ourselves. Rather, it means that we actively seek the best for others.
Using this understanding of true love, it becomes clearer how each member of the Holy Family exemplifies those qualities. St. Joseph is commonly known as the silent man of the Gospels in that he is never quoted. Yet, we see episodes that testify to his goodness. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Mary became pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly to spare her from any shame. Nevertheless, he ended up taking Mary into his home at the urging of the angel (Matthew 1:18-24).
During this period of time, Mary as a pregnant and unwed mother was extremely scandalous. Joseph would have had every right to publicly humiliate her and cast her aside; in fact, accepting her in her state would have brought notoriety to himself. Yet, he took her into his home. He was willing to sacrifice his own reputation to show his devotion to Mary and to her son, an act of true love.
Mary, similarly, shows sacrificial love at the message of an angel. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to her and announced that she would bear the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1: 32). Mary was a teenager, just betrothed to Joseph. Before the arrival of the angel, she was assured a quiet life, a peaceful life. Accepting this message would change everything; Mary’s life ahead would be a vast unknown. Nevertheless, she simply replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 38). Mary showed true love by sacrificing herself in order for the Son of God to enter the world.
And, of course, it does not take much effort to think of a moment when Jesus displayed true love. In dying on the cross, he destroyed death itself; as the tomb was closed, he opened the gates of Heaven. His willful sacrifice is the ultimate example of “laying down one’s life.” Thus, each member of the Holy Family demonstrates to us, what it means to truly love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict reminds us that “Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim” (Deus Caritas Est, 39). As we move forward into the New Year, let us use the example of the Holy Family as our inspiration and bring a bit of light to our world. By being willing to sacrifice some of ourselves each day for the sake of others, we too can become models of true love.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.