Special Olympics is an organization that helps young people with disabilities compete in athletic competitions. Many people have been helped by the organization and its events. A few years ago at the Los Angeles Special Olympics there was a young boy named Mark competing in the 50 meter track race. The runners were lined up at the starting line. The starting gun went off and the runners began to move. Mark went off with the others but soon got distracted and ran onto the infield. The officials blew the whistles and were waiving him back to the track but to no avail.
A little ahead was another competitor, a young girl with Down Syndrome. When she heard the whistles she turned around and saw Mark on the infield with the officials trying to get him “back on track.” The little girl stopped and looking at Mark cried out: “Stop, come back, this is the way.” Mark stopped but was confused so the girl ran over to him, linked arms and together they ran back to the track and finished the race. They were the last to cross the line but first in the eyes of the crowd witnessing the event. The kindness of the little girl was an act of love.
Jesus speaks to the disciples about love. “As the Father loves me, so I also love you” — a profound teaching and even more profound reality. Jesus loves us with the same love that the Father has for him. This is a perfect love, an eternal love, a love that knows no barriers, no limits. This is divine love.
Jesus goes on to say: “Remain in my love.” The invitation to life in this divine love begs the question: How do I remain in his love? Jesus gives the answer (Jesus also “is” the answer): “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”
The pinnacle of the commandments is to love. Jesus teaches about love in many ways. At another time Jesus speaks of the “greatest commandment” — loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, which he quotes from Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 6:5ff); then adds “the second is like the first” — “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” (cf. Matt 22:37ff., Mark 12:30ff., Luke 10:27ff.)
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus offers the story of the Good Samaritan as an illustration of this love (cf. Luke 10:30ff.). The kindness of the Samaritan to the man injured by robbers identifies him as one who loves. At another time, Jesus demonstrates the union of love and mercy when he forgives the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3 ff.). Still another time, Jesus shows us that compassion is tied to love – recall that he was “moved with compassion” at the crowd for they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34ff.).
In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus’ teaching on love goes to the ultimate. He says: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Earlier in the Gospel Jesus speaks to the disciples of his departure. Thomas asks: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5)
Jesus replies: “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus speaks to us of love and he shows us the “way” to love; and the “way” to the life of love, divine life and divine love. He lays down his life for us whom he calls “friends.”
Remaining in love consists of laying down one’s life for others. All too often we can think of love as an emotional state – that of “being in love” or “falling in love.” When we reflect on this we realize these are moments of heightened joy. The euphoria that comes with this is only momentary. It can be consuming and to some degree lifts us out of time.
If it is true love the love will endure long after the emotion ceases. Jesus, however, does not speak of love in these terms. Rather he speaks of love as a conscience decision of the will and a follow-through in action. Desiring to do good for another, despite the sacrifice or cost to oneself, and acting on this desire, is love. This love brings a joy that is eternal; not a joy based on emotion but a participation in the life of divine love. This love is life-giving. Just as Jesus’ giving of himself in love leads to life, so too our giving of ourselves in love gives life – “fruit that will remain.”
The passage from the First Letter of John that serves as the second reading for today’s liturgy gives another insight into love. The author reiterates Jesus’ call to love saying: “Beloved, let us love on another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.”
God’s love is revealed to us in Christ Jesus who is the Son of God sent into the world “so that we might have life through him.” The “sending” of Jesus on this mission is so that we might “know” of God’s love for us. Jesus’ death on the cross is the act of love. The author writes: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”
God loves us. Our response to that love is both one of thankful praise and one of loving others.
The magnitude of God’s love for us is seen in the crucifixion. Jesus lays down his life for his friends. The call to likewise love is real. For us the act of loving occurs in the regular routines of daily life. The order of our daily life is filled with opportunities to love in simple but meaningful ways.
We might recall that when Jesus was training his followers as disciples he said to them “if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). “Taking up the cross” is to love. When Jesus says “daily” it suggests that the activity is regularly and frequently repeated.
Acts of kindness and charity are the regular or “ordinary” ways in which we love. Simple things like greeting people whom we encounter is an act of love. Helping someone having difficulty with a task at work is an act of love. Responding to the needs of the poor is an act of love. Patiently assisting a child with homework is an act of love. Caring for a sick loved one is an act of love. Visiting with the homebound is an act of love. Spending quality time with a spouse is an act of love. The list goes on and on. The opportunities “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” and “to take up the cross daily” abound.
In the Special Olympics story above, the little girl’s kindness toward Mark was an act of love. The genuine and sincere act of charity and friendship provides a powerful witness to love. She did not think of winning the race herself; she was not weighed down by the thoughts of her training; she was not concerned with everyone watching; rather she saw a friend in need of help and offered it.
Jesus calls us to love not only in the extraordinary events of our lives but in the regular and daily routines and encounters. In all aspects of our lives we hear his call: “love one another as I love you.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.