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Love Alone Is Credible: Recognizing Christ In the Poor Requires an Encounter With the Lord

Love desires no recompense other than to be loved in return; and thus God desires nothing in return for his love for us other than our love. “Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18)

Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognize it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed and humiliated….

“Truly, I say to you, whatever [of these acts of love] you did [or failed to do] to the least of these brethren, you did [or failed to do] to me” (Mt 25:40, 45). This verdict elicits the shock of disbelief as much from those who have done these acts as from those who have not (“When, Lord, did we see thee hungry … and thirsty … and as a stranger … and naked and sick and in prison?”). For no one but Christ alone succeeds in directing his action entirely to Christ; and thus, if we live in loving faith, our ethical standard is in the end taken from our hands and placed in the love of God.

…the least encounter, or the encounter with the “least of these brethren,” has a place in the seriousness of judgment. If Christ has borne this least one and taken away his guilt, then I have to see him, through my faith in love, as he looks in the eyes of my Father in heaven; this image alone is true, and the one that I have, which seems so clear to me, is false. The Christian encounters Christ in his neighbor, not beyond him or above him; and only in this way does the encounter correspond to the incarnate and suffering love of the one who calls himself “Son of God” without the article (Jn 5:27), and who is the nearest to us in all those who are near.

To keep one’s eyes fixed on the love of Christ does not, however, mean that one overlooks one’s neighbor’s mistakes; the Samaritan had to see the wounds he was supposed to tend to (as Francis de Sales put it, voir sans regarder ). A teacher has to be aware of the child’s lack of knowledge and ability in order to carry out his task; similarly, the Christian has to look on everything in the world that stands against God with “realistic” vision (indeed, an insight into the depth of this resistance to God is available only to the Christian, in the light of the Cross), and he at the same time has to see it only in relation to the Cross, in which the world has already been conquered (Jn 12:31; 16:33).

Christian action is therefore a being taken up into God’s action through grace, being taken up into God’s love so that one can love with him….

The people who live entirely for love are not merely “moral examples” of Christian action, but, because they have handed themselves over to the fruitful love of the Redeemer, they are also our intercessors and chosen helpers. In the place that has been designated for them, however, they do no more than point to the total reciprocal integration of the deeds of all those who love; in the infinite, their lives and deeds open up to one another and mutually interpenetrate (the “communion of saints”). From this perspective, every Christian encounter is an event within this community, and there is always a responsibility, given to us as much by Christ as by the Church, to enter every situation as a representative of the whole and of the comprehensive idea of love. This is the Christian version of the categorical imperative, by virtue of which absolute love, as a “duty” that transcends every individual “inclination,” is elevated and ordered to itself, with the implacability of the Cross of Jesus Christ, and with the severity and burning flame of the living Christ himself, who seeks to set the whole of world history aflame with the fire of his love: “His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters,… from his mouth issued a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev 1:14-17). The Beloved Apostle’s vision already perfectly reflects the consuming fire of the Gospel itself, which contains and surpasses all of the ardor of the Old Testament combined. And what burns most searingly here is that the absolute impatience of divine love conceals itself in the absolute humility and poverty of the heart (just as the storm of Sinai is concealed in the quiet whisper of Mount Horeb), precisely so that, when it does burst forth, it is all the more overwhelming.

The saints experienced something of the heat of this categorical imperative; we can see it in their lives and actions. It is in them that Christian love becomes credible; they are the poor sinners’ guiding stars. But every one of them wishes to point completely away from himself and toward love. Wherever the gap between absolute love and the lovers pointing to it diminishes through some sort of “identity”—in terms of a pietistic, or mystical, or spiritual, or Joachimite theology (for example, when Francis, or even simply the priest, is taken to be an “alter Christus,” and so forth)—the love revealed by the Bible immediately loses its credibility. In this case, the decisively Christian element would be threatened or even eclipsed by the general, anthropological element. Likewise, the saints’ love would lie like a flashy mantle over their fully developed “religious per-sonality”; they would once again be seeking their own glory, however surreptitiously, and they would be coming in their own name (Jn 5:41f.)….

But the genuine saints desired nothing but the greater glory of God’s love; this alone is the condition of possibility of what they do. A person would contradict them outright if, thinking he knows better, he were to interpret their deeds as means of self-glorification. The saints are lost in the depths of God; they are hidden in him. Their perfection grows not around the center of their ego, but solely around the center of God, whose inconceivable and incalculable grace it is to make his creature freer in himself and for himself to the extent that he becomes freer for God alone. We can resolve this paradox only if we understand, in the light of God’s self-gift, that he is love, which is just as jealous as it is without envy, so that it can gather exclusively to itself just as much as it casts itself out to all.

The sole credibility of the Church Christ founded lies, as he himself says, in the saints, as those who sought to set all things on the love of Christ alone. It is in them that we can see what the “authentic” Church is, that is, what she is in her authenticity, while she is essentially obscured by sinners (as people who do not seriously believe in God’s love) and turned into a useless enigma, which as such deservedly provokes contradiction and blasphemy (Rom 2:24).

Christ’s apologetic, by contrast, can be summarized in the sentence: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This, however, means demonstrating the truth of dogma: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (Jn 17:23).. Love as deed; a deed that is as genuinely human (with a heavy emphasis on the corporal works of mercy) as it is therefore genuinely divine (because it is granted by God’s patience and humility), and thus a deed that becomes effectively present through everything that happens in the Church (in the preaching and the Mass and the sacraments and the organization and canon law)—this is the “proof of spirit and power.”

It is only at this point that one can speak about the ultimate mystery of love. This is themagnum mysterium of the “one flesh” (Eph 5:31), as being “one in spirit” (I Cor 6:17), as “one bread, one body” (I Cor 10:17). A mystery of unspeakable unity, “no longer living for oneself” (2 Cor 5:15), but henceforward living only for the One who loves, indeed, “no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), “God himself shines in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:6).

Excerpted and reprinted from Love Alone is Credible. Translated by D. C. Schindler. (San Francisco: Communio, Ignatius Press, 2004, 107-109, 119-123 Used with permission from Ignatius Press.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No. 3, May-July 2010.