“Love is the Christian’s Teacher”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In St. Maximos the Confessor’s work entitled Four Centuries on Love, after he has said so much about perfect love towards God in each stage of the spiritual life—in each eﬀort, in each motivation, to such an extent that someone like myself feels very overwhelmed hearing of such heights and such perfection which the saints attain—he brings to a close this lofty and beautiful work with the words:
Many have said much about love, but you will ﬁnd love itself only if you seek it among the disciples of Christ. For only they have true Love as love’s teacher. ‘Though I have the gift of prophecy,’ says St. Paul, ‘and know all mysteries and all knowledge... and have no love, it proﬁts me nothing’ (1 Cor. 13:2-3). He who possesses love possesses God Himself, for ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). To Him be glory throughout the ages. Amen.
In today’s homily, we will consider two conclusions that are drawn from what St. Maximos has written. Number one: in light of those who like to lump all religions and beliefs together, to show the commonality between them and downplay their diﬀerences (i.e., Syncretists and Perennialists), St. Maximos says you will only ﬁnd love amongst the disciples of Christ, in the Church that is. Second, in light of those of us who do not love as we would want to love, whether it be God, our neighbor, or even ourselves, to us, he says, “Do not be disheartened because we have “Love as our teacher even if we are poor students.” Moreover, this is St. Maximos’ point, in no other religion or philosophy, do you ﬁnd that God is love, do you ﬁnd that Love is your teacher, except amongst the disciples of Christ, in the Church.
The God who is Love
In the oft-repeated phrase, “Love, and do what you want” we note that lack of standard by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of this “love” and therefore it is left up to each individual as to how they understand it. Although sincerity will carry meekness and humility far, it is unable to show us, to direct us or guide us, unlike the God who is love who dwells in His Church.
It is this God who is known, who is not hidden from the hearts of men but is present before all of humankind. He is not some lower deity or some man who became a god, or some god amongst a pantheon of gods. Instead it is He who is the Trinity, who has made the heavens and the earth, and all things visible and invisible, the second person of whom came down from heaven as a manifestation of God’s love for us and became man, to dwell among us and to show us love, not just in his condescension, His coming to earth, but in all that He did because Christ, as God, is love. This love is not only present in His compassion towards those suﬀering whom He healed, or only toward his friends, or just towards His disciples, but was present in all that He was and did, even before His enemies.
In today’s Gospel reading, we note the compassion of God for the woman who had suﬀered for eighteen years, bent to the ground, unable to straighten out. He was not ashamed to call her to Himself while in the Synagogue and to lay His hands on her and heal her so that she could straighten up amidst all those who looked on, His adversaries, as they were called, who were full of hate and accusation.
We ﬁnd the same in the shortest verse of Scripture which says, “Jesus wept.” He wept because he learned that His close friend Lazarus had died and when he came to Bethany he saw not strangers but his friends, Mary and Martha, weeping as well as a crowd of Jews weeping and the Evangelist Luke tells us that He “groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (Luke 11:33), and when he arrived at Lazarus’ grave He wept.
At the “Last Supper” the Evangelist John tells us that as they were all sitting at the table together, before the feast of the Passover, before he would be taken prisoner in the Garden of Gethsemane, sitting at the table with the Disciples who had been with Him during all of His teachings, even Judas who would soon betray Him. At this moment, John tells us, “when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (John 13:1).
Moreover, in one ﬁnal example, where Christ is not amongst his friends but surrounded by his enemies, the Evangelist Luke writes that He was brought to Calvary, and there was cruciﬁed between two malefactors with people looking on and rulers scorning Him to his face while soldiers mocked him, dividing his clothing and gambling for them. In front of all of them, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Examples of Love in the Lives of Saints
Let us not think that these examples are only relegated to the past, when God walked amongst us because He is still present with us in His Church as Christ promised that he would be with us always, even until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20) For God is present in His Church which is enlivened by the Holy Spirit like a living organism until the end of time into which we are grafted and from which we are given life. It is in the Church that the continuation of this love is found and, in an exemplary way, it is seen in the lives of the saints.
The lives of the saints are diﬀerent when compared to the life of Christ. In Christ’s life, we see the love of God for mankind, we see that while we were still sinners, He died for us (Romans 5:8). Christ’s life is not only an example for us as though He was only a moral ﬁgure because what He did has repercussions for all of the human race in time and eternity. Looking to the life of the disciples of Christ we see their life as a response to God’s love, or as the Apostle John wrote, “We love Him because He ﬁrst loved us” (1 John 4:19). It is in their lives that you can see the degree of love towards God wherein many even gave up their own life not only to overcome their own will, not only to renounce the world and become monastics but to even accept death because of their love for God. As St. Maximos writes, “Love for God leads him who shares in it to be indiﬀerent to every transient pleasure and every labor and distress. Let all the saints, who have suﬀered joyfully so much for Christ, convince you of this.” (Second Century on Love, #58). Therefore, in many of the lives of saints, we see their love for God by their love for their neighbor.
Elder Moses of Optina, when seeing and hearing the suﬀerings of so many that came to him in need of physical and spiritual sustenance would say that he wished he could be cut up into small pieces and given to each person if only it would help, such was his love for others.
St. Alexey Mechev, following the death of his wife became very sorrowful. He went to visit St. John of Kronstadt for counsel who instructed him to use his grief to share in the grief of the ﬂock whom he shepherded which, in the end, healed these wounds. Through his love, he would be considered the “Elder (Staretz) of Moscow.”
Valeriu Gafencu, described as “The Saint of the Prisons,” who suﬀered under communist Romania also physically suﬀered in the prisons. It was said of him, “He suﬀered from caverns in his lungs, he had pleurisy and underwent pneumothoraxes, he had frequent hemoptyses and lost his appetite. He endured rheumatic pain throughout his body, abdominal pains caused by appendicitis and, ﬁnally, he had trouble with his heart… During the last two years of his life, he was no longer able to stretch out on his bed, day or night, but sat leaning on the edge of his bed with his head falling onto his chest.” During such trials, other prisoners remarked, “Although very sick, through his love and serenity Valeriu was the very soul of the spiritual atmosphere at [the re-education prison in] Târgu-Ocna.” (The Saint of the Prisons, 133).
One ﬁnal example of the love of God which is shed abroad in the hearts of his saints is St. Silouan. “Not everyone can be an emperor or a prince,” he writes, “not everyone can be a patriarch or an abbot, or a leader; but in every walk of life we can love God and be pleasing to Him, and only this is important” (Saint Silouan the Athonite, 343). What is more, though, is not only that we see the saint’s love towards God and neighbor, but as St. Silouan further explains St. Maximos’ point above, that only those who have “L”ove as their teacher will know true love because they are taught this by the Holy Spirit. He writes, “Until I was seven and twenty I simply believed that God is, but I did not know Him; but when my soul came to know Him by the Holy Spirit I was consumed with longing for Him, and now day and night I seek Him with a burning heart” (Ibid., 343).
Although we may be overwhelmed by our own callousness, our own numbness, our own deadness to spiritual things yet here we are in the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Although we may be assailed with our own personal frustrations, failures, and unable to look outside of our own selves, yet it is here where we are surrounded but such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). And although our souls may be damaged like the woman’s body in the Gospel reading today wherein it is bent down struggling to look up to God, struggling to love God, struggling to love our neighbor yet it is here where we will be taught by God, where we will learn from Christ and where, amidst all of our brokenness we will come to know the God who is Love .
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.