“Let me give you a new command: Love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13, 31-33a, 34-35
On the surface, today’s gospel looks to be fairly inoffensive, the run-of-the-mill stuff we expect of Jesus. I suggest we look at it in the context of when Jesus spoke those words about loving one another, and in the contemporary context of Francis’ papacy.
In what we now call “The Last Supper”, Jesus had a very clear premonition that his enemies were about to do away with him. So, he turned his attention to the legacy he wanted to leave to his closest friends. He set out to give them something that they could hold onto when confusion and grief would overcome them, after his death. He sensed that the only experience that would carry them through would be love. And let’s not forget that love is much more than a feeling. It is a verb; it is action; it is action that makes real demands.
To better understand the pressures under which Jesus lived his life, we have to appreciate that he was fully human. That’s what incarnation means. He was flesh and blood like us, with all the accompanying emotions and feelings that are part of being human. To spell that out, I am indebted to a piece written by a man I greatly admire, the late George McCauley SJ. He described, in a very imaginative way, how Jesus loved us:
“I will act as though I’m not God. I’ll go the acculturation route, wear native dress - they call it flesh and blood - live like them, be one of them. I will take on their full emotional range. I will get angry, frustrated, anxious, annoyed, guilt-stricken. I will get knots in my stomach before I preach, just as they do, and I’ll have to raise my voice to be heard. I’ll pray like them, dealing with all kinds of distractions and doubts. I’ll taste the silence and waiting of prayer. I’ll experience the fear that, in prayer, I just might be waiting for the echo of my own voice to return. I’ll draw near to God in all my humanity, and pray that I don’t melt when I get too close. I’ll feel the deep human shudder before the mystery - the helplessness and the incomprehension.
“I’ll try to free up other people in their relationship to God. People can get so constipated in this regard; sometimes, I don’t know whether to laugh at them or cry. It will take a lot of convincing to get them to see that God is smarter, funnier, more sophisticated, more tender and knowing, more classy than they are. I will probably lose it at times, and run on about fire and brimstone. But I can’t be expected to take on a kind of measured expression that is really inhuman.
“Many of them are over twenty-one. So, if I break a law here and there to make a point about God, they should be able to figure that out, too. I’ll reject sin because I will come to see it as the enemy within my own humanity. Getting things across to people will be difficult at times. They seem so uptight, isolated, selfish and even vicious. Will that happen to me, too? In any case, I know there will be no shortcuts. I’ll be especially conscious of people’s history - where they have come from, and what resources, customs and habits they come with. I’ll work out how to deal differently with adults and young people. I’ll live with all their myths and legends, and their late-night storytelling.
“I’ll forge my own values out of the disarray I see and the conflicting opinions I hear. And when I share my values with others, I’ll take the consequences - incomprehension, misquoting, suspicion of my motives and of my convictions (they really know how to go for the weak spot, don’t they?) But it won’t be so bad. At least my friends will never abandon me. Anyway, who would want to hurt anyone who is in favour of love?” (George McCauley, The Unfinished Image, Sadlier NY, 1983, p. 165-167)
The love with which Jesus loved is completely and authentically human in shape and form. It’s the kind of love that God’s spirit has planted deep within us, and which has been reinforced by the parents who loved us into life and who modelled for us the selflessness of love. The biggest difficulty that most of us have with Jesus is accepting that he was consistently, relentlessly human. We have often been reminded of the words of St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Those words hold just as true for Jesus as they do for each one of us.
Being told by Jesus to love one another leaves no room for word games, rationalisations, negotiations, exceptions or explanations. “One another” surely means those all around us, those with whom we live and work and play and worship. They mean our parents, siblings and the next-door neighbours. They mean those with whom we argue and litigate about the fairness of grandad’s will. Loving one another means much more than tolerating or getting along with our brothers and sisters. It means actually loving them, wanting what’s best for them, rejoicing with them in their successes and supporting them in their losses and failures, and when they make mistakes and end up in prison. And if today’s gospel is not quite enough, we can stop and look at how St Teresa of Avila spelled it out in detail for us: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013, it was not by accident that he chose the name Francis. He was acutely aware of Francis of Assisi-a man of poverty and peace, a man whose heart overflowed with love of those around him, and whose love embraced creation, the environment and all the other creatures among whom we live. But the new Pope was also acutely aware of the profound change of heart that Francis of Assisi underwent in the broken church of San Damiano, outside the walls of Assisi. It was there that the first Francis heard the call: “Go, rebuild my church which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” Our present-day Church is broken and falling into ruin. According to census takers, the second largest “religious group” in the world is now ex-Catholics. They have been disillusioned and disaffiliated by things like the scandal of sexual abuse, clericalism, the Church’s inability to stay connected with young people, its inertia, and reluctance to invite into leadership lay women and men. Pope Francis realised that he inherited a Church that is in desperate need of rebuilding. It will be rebuilt when we, as a community, take seriously Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” That means being a community that engages with the poor, the dispossessed, those driven by war, terrorism, violence and injustice from the places they call home. It means reaching out with genuine love and care to our needy brothers and sisters. It means love in action. It means, as Pope Francis says, getting our hands dirty, catching the smell of sheep in need. Love in action speaks all languages. It also helps to rebuild broken lives and broken co