Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J

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Love has many different meanings. In marriage it means everything. In tennis love means nothing. In the rest of life it can mean anything. We love oranges, pizza and football. Love is the most misunderstood word in the language. Love is the answer. But love is also the problem. What is Christian love? Let us begin by considering what it is not.

Love is not like. What is it that makes us like one person and dislike another? Whatever it is, it is something over which we have little or no control. Love is in the will. Since we have a free will we can love those we dislike, even our enemies. We can love them because they are made in the image of God and have an intrinsic core goodness that nothing can destroy. We can distinguish between the person and the person’s actions. Opinions and actions are to be judged, but the person is to be loved. We may hate the sin but love the sinner. No one hated sin more than Jesus and no one ever loved the sinner as much as he did.

Love is not justice. Justice is that moral virtue which makes us give to others what they have a right to. Justice forms the infrastructure of love. Love begins where justice ends. Once we have given to others what they have a right to, then we are in the field of love.

Love is not found in words. Love is found in deeds. “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt.7:21) Love is authenticated by the observance of the commandments. “If you love me keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Loving deeds are the fruit and the proof of love. St. Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will.” What he meant was that if we truly love we will do what is right.

Love does not mean an absence of conflict. Real conflicts do not destroy love. They lead to clarification and strength. Each person is unique and sees reality in a unique way. So love is a constant challenge, a working together whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness. It is a growing together. It would be a rather dull world if everyone agreed on everything. To disagree is not to hate. Love makes it possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

It is not possible for anyone to give an absolutely objective view of anything. Our view is colored by our personality and our experience. Each person is a mystery, a mystery even to themselves. A mystery only God knows. We should respect this mystery and not try to destroy it with a stereotype. How wise is the advice of St. Augustine, “In necessary things let us have unity, in doubtful things let us have liberty, but in all things let us have charity.”

Love does not mean that you never have to say you are sorry. Reconciliation is an important part of human love. Human nature is such that people cannot love one another very long without having to forgive and be forgiven. Reconciliation is the catalyst that causes love to mature and grow. That is what Jesus meant when he said to whom little is forgiven loves little. We have a wonderful example of this in the parable of the prodigal son. The young man knew his father loved him. But it was not until he had squandered all of his inheritance in dissolute living and then received the complete forgiveness of his father that he realized how much his father really did love him. It was an experience the elder son would never have. Forgiveness is not the “reprieve of a judge, but the embrace of a lover.”

Love is not cheap. It costs to be a lover. The language of love is sacrifice. Never has this language of love been spoken so convincingly and as efficaciously as our Lord spoke it from the cross on Calvary. The crucifix with the wounded heart will ever be the symbol and the proof of love. If you want to know how much you love someone just ask yourself how much you are will to sacrifice, not of your possessions, but of yourself for that person.

We have been chipping away at the concept of love to remove its false meanings, to see what it is not. We have arrived now at a definition of Christian love. It is a definition not in words but in flesh, an incarnation, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the fullest expression both of the love of God for us and the fullest expression of the human response to that love.

We realize now that there is only one love, and that is the love of God. Before creation there was only God. This God is love. God freely wills to share this love with others. This infinite love passed through the prism of creation is refracted into an infinite number of finite acts of love, each unique, unrepeatable and indispensable.

We are not Creators. We are only receivers and transmitters of the love of God, “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.” We open our hearts to receive this love, let it permeate our being and then filter through us, radiate from us and overflow from us to others.

Because we are finite acts of the love of God, our deepest need is to love and be loved. To help us realize and fill this need God has commanded us to love. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matt.22:37-40)

Jesus made love the distinguishing mark of his followers. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) There is an indissoluble bond between the love of God and the love of the neighbor. You cannot have one without the other. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar, for whoever does not love the brother he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) The converse is equally true. We cannot love the neighbor without the love of God. Of course, we can love those who love us without a love of God, even pagans do this. But we cannot love the neighbor who is our enemy without the love of God.

The love of God and the love of the neighbor balance one another. Whenever one is cut away from the other it becomes a caricature of itself. Love of God without the love of the neighbor becomes pride and haughtiness. How many cruelties have been committed in the name of God! How many wars are fought over religion! The love of the neighbor without the love of God becomes sentimental philanthropy, secular humanism.

It is not easy to maintain the balance between these two loves. The intersection of the love of God (the vertical) with the love of the neighbor (the horizontal) forms a cross. And this is the crux of the matter. It is relatively easy to love only God, or to love only the neighbor. But it is difficult to do both. The cross also illustrates the relationship between the love of God and the love of the neighbor. In the cross it is the vertical beam that upholds the horizontal beam. Take away the vertical beam and the horizontal beam falls to the ground to rot. Take away the love of God and the love of the neighbor rots.

Besides the love of God and the love of the neighbor there is a third love which is very important and often forgotten. And that is the love of self. In fact, the love of self is the norm for the love of the neighbor. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. If I do not love myself I am not able to love my neighbor. God loved me into existence. I am a gift of God. What gross ingratitude it is to refuse to accept this gift. And what a dishonor to God it is! So I accept myself, I love myself, I affirm myself and I celebrate myself, because in so doing I am accepting, loving, affirming and celebrating God.

Nothing is more practical and relevant than love. Our deepest need is to love and be loved. Without love we lose our will to live. Life becomes a dull, dreary, monotonous grind without purpose or meaning. What we need and what the world needs now is love, real Christian love.


There seems to be a common misunderstanding that love and fear are mutually exclusive.

The truth is that, at least in this life, they are mutually inclusive. But is it not true that “Perfect love casts out fear?” Yes, but this perfect love is not to be found in this life. It is only found in the next life where there is no possibility of losing the beloved.

In this life “fearless love” is a contradiction in terms. We fear because we love. We fear losing the beloved. And we fear in proportion as we love. Our fear is a barometer of our love. And today that barometer indicates that in spite of all of the glib talk, and loud protestations of love, the love we have for God is at a low level.

There seems to be a pathological contempt for fear today: a fear of fear. We are loath to do anything out of fear. Admittedly fear is not the best motive, love is. But it is reasonable to act on the motive of fear when the object is worthy of fear. And there are some things worthy of fear. There is something worse than death. We can lose the ONE by whom we were made, for whom we were made and without whom we can never be perfectly happy. The great irony is that the present day contempt of fear has produced the most fearful generation of Americans. Since we do not fear God we fear everything else. We have become the “fearful-fearless generation.” We even fear to fear.

Many of our common, daily actions are motivated by fear. Why do we put our money in banks and put locks on our doors? The universal fear of death is a built-in protection for preserving life. Fear is the emergency passion that starts the adrenalin flowing and prepares us for an extraordinary and sometimes life-saving effort. Without fear we would not be prepared to meet the great emergencies of life.

Scripture tells us that the “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:11) The fear of the Lord is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Isaiah 11:2) Our Lord who experienced great fear in the Garden of Gethsemane teaches us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, fear him rather who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28) St. Paul tells us, “work for your salvation in fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:13)

St. Ignatius writes in his Spiritual Exercises, “Though the zealous service of God, our Lord, out of pure love should be esteemed above all, we ought also to praise highly the fear of the Divine Majesty. For not only FILIAL FEAR but also SERVILE FEAR is pious and very holy. When nothing higher or more useful is attained, it is very helpful for rising from mortal sin, and once this is accomplished, one may easily advance to FILIAL FEAR which is wholly pleasing and agreeable to God, our Lord, since IT IS INSEPARABLY ASSOCIATED WITH THE LOVE OF HIM.”


The theological virtues of faith, hope and love constitute a person a Christian and supply the inner dynamic from which flows every authentically Christian action. For the Christian, life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived in faith, hope and love.

Faith, hope and love are called theological virtues because they have God as their immediate object. These virtues enable us to have an intimate, personal relationship with God. They are mentally distinguishable but practically inseparable. We can distinguish one from another. But in the concrete world of reality it is hardly possible to have one without the others, at least in some degree. In other words, Christian faith is a loving, trusting faith.

These three virtues create a virtuous circle which is the inner dynamic of a Christian. Faith generates hope. Faith and hope generate love. And love produces loving actions which reinforce and strengthen faith and hope.

God is omnipresent and loves us unconditionally. This is a given, always present and always available. We make them our own, and put limits on them, by the intensity of our faith, hope and love. Whatever is received is received according to the disposition of the recipient. This is also the lesson of the sower and the seed. It is the quality of the soil that determines the quantity and the quality of the produce. So we see the importance of these theological virtues of faith, hope and love.


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