By David and Angela Franks
This column appeared in the February 28, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.
Lent epitomizes the long journey towards the fullness of love. Aren’t we ready for a renewal of our hearts? In this season, Jesus draws us more intensely into His poverty and defenselessness, to make us rich in love.
In his Lenten Message, Pope Francis takes Saint Paul’s words, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) God the Son falls like a comet from heavenly glory into the howling waste of human waywardness. God takes on human flesh! Why? So that He might enter into the suffering and despair of each of us.
This love-pursuit creates the Body of Christ, the body of all humanity as it is being forged into the unity of the Holy Spirit. The “passionate” love of God for man generates the fullness of solidarity.
We are in the habit of placing on one side the heart’s desire to love and be loved and on the other the pursuit of social justice. This is a false dichotomy. All the currencies of intimacy, in their truth, subserve the intensification of human solidarity. Or, to put it differently, the theology of the body leads directly into Catholic social doctrine.
This is the point of Pope Benedict’s beautiful first encyclical, God is Love (Deus caritas est). He begins with a meditation on eros as the love between man and woman, shows how eros must allow agape (self-sacrificial love) to suffuse it and how this transfigured eros finds its fulfillment in charity (the supernatural love infused into our souls at baptism). This charity, of itself, gives rise to the works of charity, our care for all the others, especially the physically and emotionally vulnerable, the victims, the poor. That is, every true love-story is aimed at the solidarity of the New Jerusalem.
Eros has many meanings. For Plato, it is basically the yearning of the human soul for that which transcends this worldly condition, a yearning expressed in the desire to know, the desire for beauty, the desire to do good. To question, to pay attention, to create: the human soul desires to expand into the infinite. A special instance of eros is the love between man and woman. Eros must mature into desiring the good of the other person, not only desiring the good for me that the other person is. Eros is in training for solidarity, for universal empathy, care, and responsibility.
This vector heads towards marriage, and through marriage, it aims at the taking on of the good of every single other as my concern. Marriage is the beginning of the Kingdom of all hearts, united in mutual care, a care for the overlooked, the hidden victims (think of the children in the dark places of the world, the unborn, the myriads of the poor who live and die in squalor), a care for the brother or sister I take to be an enemy.
C. S. Lewis expresses this in a startling way in The Four Loves, “[Eros’s] total commitment is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man. As nature, for the nature-lover, gives a content to the word glory, so this gives a content to the word Charity. It is as if Christ said to us through Eros, ‘Thus—just like this—with this prodigality—not counting the cost—you are to love me and the least of my brethren.’”
Pope Francis reminds us that true love is consummated in solidarity. Why does God come among us? “The reason for all this is His love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances.”
Love seeks the formation of the universal body of Christ. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
True love is ultimately to be a participation in the love shared by Father and Son in the Spirit, a love that will not abandon the defenseless sheep to darkness. Pope Francis continues, “So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? …What gives us true freedom, true salvation, and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness, and solidarity of His love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is His taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of His boundless confidence in God the Father, His constant trust, His desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to Him.”
If we allow Christ’s trust in the Father to grow in us, all those anxieties that dog us will lose their grip over time, and we will be liberated to love with open hand all the defenseless hearts placed on our way.
Pope Francis exhorts us, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own, and to take practical steps to alleviate it. …Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
Giving up something for Lent, fasting more than required, tithing ten percent, almsgiving (above and beyond tithing), more fervent prayer: how our hearts will burn to love all neighbors!