When we find ourselves at an impasse, it always helps to go back to the basics; or when our zeal is at a low ebb, we ought to remember our first love. I’m sure for each one of us that’s different, but for me, the writings of St. John the Theologian are one of those landmarks that I go back to and that continues to inspire me. Matthew was a wealthy publican, Luke was a well-educated physician, Paul was a learned Pharisee; but John’s writings stand apart from all of them. Here we have the fulfillment of Paul’s words that God uses the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the high and mighty. The words of this simple unlettered fisherman resound more forcefully and clearly than all the rest.
It was given to the Son of Thunder to make the most memorable proclamations in the whole of Scripture—In the beginning was the Word; the Word was made flesh; God is love. Volumes of theology have been written about each one of those statements, and still their force and meaning has not been exhausted, their depths have not fully been plumbed. When I read the words of the Theologian, I always feel as though I’m looking into an impenetrable abyss. On the one hand, his language is so clear and simple—passages from his Gospel are elementary exercises in the textbooks of biblical Greek. His style is nothing like Paul’s, whose dense sentences can run on for paragraphs at a time. And yet, simple as they are, the words of St. John always seem to hide another layer of meaning. Their full import always eludes the most frequent and careful study, and his teaching stubbornly resists systematization. Because of this, we can sense that these words are not the fruit of great learning and erudition or the product of natural human wit; they are the words of the Spirit, the words of eternal life, and they proceed according to divine logic. Like the rays of the sun, their beauty and their radiance lead our gaze back to their source, but our fallen minds just like our feeble eyes, are not long able to look at the Sun—just long enough to register its brilliance, but never enough to fully take it in.
Of all the writings in the New Testament, St. John’s first epistle is the one that speaks to me the most. Yes, it can be repetitive, and it doesn’t seem to proceed according to any particular rhetorical plan. But it contains the very essence of the Gospel and the life in Christ. And so at the risk of contradicting my earlier comment about systematization, I think St. John’s message in this epistle boils down to these four propositions:
- God is love.
- Because He is love, God gave us His Son.
- When we believe in His Son, we believe in God’s love for us.
- Because we believe in God’s love for us, we should love Him and one another.
That’s it. That is the whole apostolic preaching in a nutshell. It is so simple, a child can understand it. It’s logic is so compelling, only a fool or a devil would dispute it. And yet it is so simple that we’re often blind to it. Like the sun, we can’t look at it for too long; our mental eyes are weak, clouded by passions, bent down to the earth. We glance briefly, admire the beauty, and then look away. We so easily lose sight of what it most essential. And in so doing, we become irrational. As St. John tells us, Jesus is the Word, the λόγος of God. When our life is not directed towards Him, it becomes ἄλογος, illogical, without reason or purpose.
Let’s talk about those four propositions in more detail. First, “God is love, ἀγάπη—that is, pure, self-sacrificial, self-emptying love. St. Paul gives us its characteristics in his first epistle to the Corinthians: Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth (1 Cor. 13:4-8). So when we hear “God is love,” we should know that we’re not talking about just any kind of love.
Now, there is a trendy set of slogans that gets put in rainbow colors on t-shirts and yard signs. They comprise what you might call the “Secular Progressive Symbol of Faith.” All of them are prefaced by the creedal statement, “In this house, we believe…” One of the articles of this faith is that “Love is love.” It affirms that all human loves are of equal worth and legitimacy, that there is no basis for distinguishing between them. This refusal to acknowledge any criterion of judgment is what the world considers “compassion”. When we consider this idea in light of the holy teaching of St. John, it reveals a real blasphemy. Love is a name of God—we might even say it is the name of God, as it reveals the nature common to all three Persons of the Trinity. And yet the world call any and all forms of human desire, sexual or otherwise, no matter how perverse or depraved, by this same holy name.
It’s worth recalling at this point why St. John is the one to speak so powerfully about love, why He was the beloved disciple, why He was so close to the Lord that He lay on His breast at the Last Supper. Tradition tells us that Jesus loved Him especially because of his exceptional purity. He was still quite young during Christ’s earthly ministry, and unlike many other Apostles, he was unmarried, and remained so until the end of his life. In his Revelation, we find that virgins, they which were not defiled with women (Rv. 14:4), have the special privilege of singing a new song, known to them alone, before the throne of God. Not only were these virgins not defiled with women, but it also says, they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth (Rv. 14:4). It comes as no surprise, then, that the pure, virginal John, the beloved disciple, was himself so full of love for his Lord that he alone among the Apostles followed the Lamb of God to His self-offering on the Cross at Golgotha. Only Christ’s most-pure, ever-virgin Mother was with him there at the foot of the Cross. And so it seems there is a deep connection between love, the Cross, and virginity or purity.
What is this connection? The link between love and the Cross is obvious, and it brings us back to the second proposition I mentioned earlier: “Because He is love, God gave us His Son.” We find this stated most clearly in St. John’s Gospel, when Christ is speaking to Nicodemus by night: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16). The verses immediately preceding this show that the Lord is speaking of the Cross in particular: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life (Jn. 3:14-15).
The Cross is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for us. The Father shows His love by giving us what is most precious to Him, His beloved Son. The Son shows His love for the Father and for us by accepting the Cross and offering Himself upon it. This is love’s most perfect expression. St. Justin Popovich explains this in his commentary on St. John’s epistles: “We have known the love of God through the Savior. Until then, we actually did not know what true love is. Only in the Savior have we realized what true love is—the salvation of man from sin, death, and the devil. Before Him, there were only stories and fairy tales about divine love, but it entered our world for the first time with Him.” When we see the Cross, then, we see a reminder of God’s love, and all that He has done for our salvation.
Of course, we can only have such an understanding of the Cross through faith, by believing on Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior. Otherwise, we will see in the Cross just one more senseless, painful, humiliating death that does nothing to redeem the collective suffering of humanity, that is bereft of saving love. The Cross presents each of us with the same choice that faced the two thieves crucified with Christ. The one found paradise, and the other perdition. But when we dare, like the good thief, to believe that this man nailed to the Cross is in fact the Son of God, we are doing nothing other than to believe in the love of God for us. This is the third proposition contained in St. John’s epistle—that believing in God’s Son means believing in God’s love.
When our hearts perceive ever so slightly the love that the Cross represents, when by faith we understand that Jesus died on the Cross for us, for each one of us in particular, then we cannot help but feel love for our Savior in return, and we instinctively begin to trust in Him with our whole heart. And so the third proposition leads inexorably to the fourth—that if we believe in God’s love, we ought to love Him. Or as St. John puts it, We love him, because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). St. Justin elaborates on this in his commentary: “[Love of Christ] is the only true love; all other loves are true only if they are derived from it and insofar as they are like it. Our love of Christ is the natural answer to Christ’s love of man. Not one single type of love on earth is so completely justified and deserved as our love towards Christ.”
If our hearts are so naturally moved to love for Christ when we come to understand his love for us, how do we respond, how do we begin to express that love? St. John is ready for us with the answer: Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love on another (1 Jn. 4:11); And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also (1 Jn. 4:21). Love for our brother is the corollary and extension of our love for Christ. Truly, they are one and the same love; one cannot exist in us without the other. St. Justin explains: “In loving Christ God, we love, through Him and for Him, everything in man that is divine, immortal, in the image of Christ, eternal, and theanthropic. We cannot love man with true love if we do not love him for these reasons. Every other love is a pseudo-love, a so-called love, which easily changes into un-love, and into hatred towards man … For there is nothing easier than to loathe man due to his depravity or due to his stench or due to his rottenness.”
So that brings us to the end of the fourth proposition in St. John’s epistle—if we believe in God’s love, we ought to love Him and one another. If we want to participate in God’s love, manifest fully on the Cross, then we should remember that the Cross formed with two bars—the vertical bar is our love for God, and the horizontal bar is love for man. If we are missing either one, then our love is no longer Christian love.
So we have established the connection between love and Cross. But what about virginity, which we mentioned earlier? Is it only possible to achieve Christian love by living a life of virginity? The history of the Church makes it clear that it’s not impossible to attain this virtue in the married state. But it also indicates that virginity is the easiest way to reach it. Even those great saints who were married often lived in exceptional chastity and abstinence. Why should the virtue of purity or chastity contribute so much to the ultimate Christian virtue of love? Because even the natural attraction that exists between men and women, even when it is not completely dominated by base lust, is still something carnal and imperfect. We call this impassioned state, “being in love.” But it is very far from true Christian love. Even when it is used lawfully, the ardent and often inordinate affection that first attracts a couple to each other must be tempered and give way to a deeper, spiritual bond. For everything carnal inevitably dies away, and when it does, as St. Justin said earlier, what we once mistakenly referred to as ‘love’ will quickly and easily turn into hatred. This reveals its true character.
But those who embrace virginity choose to bypass this state entirely, so that they may fully devote the ardor of their affection to Christ. Freed from the constraints of a spouse, a family, and all of the cares that they entail, those in a state of perfect chastity are free to pursue the love of God. Unencumbered by the particular attachments of family life, they are free to embrace all men equally with their love, which springs naturally from their fervent love of God. This is the ideal that we see exemplified by St. John, the Mother of God, by countless saints, and even by the Lord Himself, who lived on earth in a virginal state. As monastics, this is the ideal we have embraced. Let us keep before our minds and never lose sight of it, lest we fall short of the high calling that we have professed. And so I leave you with these words of the Apostle: Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever (1 Jn. 3:15-17). Amen.
 Archim. Justin Popovich, Commentary on the Epistles of St. John the Theologian, trans. Radomir M. Plavsic (Alhambra: Sebastian Press, 2009), 65-66.
 Popovich, Commentary, 68.
 Ibid. 69-70.