Sunday reflection: John 13:31-35

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 13:31–33a, 34–35:

When Judas had left them, Jesus said,

“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love. We talk a lot about it, sing about it, construct entertainments from comedy skits to grand Shakespearean theater about love, or what we think of as love. In these reflections, I often discuss the inadequacy of the word in English to convey what love means in the sense of salvation and hope, but that sometimes doesn’t cover the breadth of the concept either. Can any of us grasp the true nature of love, as Christ meant, and as the Lord proposes over the course of salvation history?

This week, I’ve been on the road with my wife (readers know why), and the last part of the tour this week took the form of a road trip. That gave us some time alone together, as well as offered me considerable consolation from the loneliness and spiritual angst that comes with traveling, at least for me. Traveling isn’t necessarily the easiest thing in the world for Marcia, especially on trips where time is significantly regimented and control of our travels rests with others. She does enjoy traveling in general, but this wasn’t easy. However, she wanted to support me on this effort, perhaps sensing that my need for emotional support was a bit greater than usual. That was a form of caritas that I fortunately recognize and immediately appreciated, perhaps more than I managed to articulate this week.

But we all struggle to understand and appreciate caritas love, even when we intellectually grasp the concept. When we take road trips, Marcia and I like to download books on Audible and share them to help the time pass. This time, I chose Ron Fournier’s new book Love That Boy, which tells the tale of Ron’s struggle to come to grips with his son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Ron tells of his regrets and guilt over having imposed his expectations on his son, focusing more attention on his career than his marriage and family, and his own struggle to see past his own self to understand the blessings that Tyler brings to him and the world. It also involves road trips that Ron and Tyler took — Ron calls them “guilt trips” — and he weaves the tales of interactions the two of them had with three presidents with a recounting of his experiences as a father to all three of his children and as a husband to his wife Lori.

Marcia and I listened intently to the book through two major legs of the road trip, with tears and laughter. For me, at least, the book spoke to my own experiences as a father, and my own “guilt trips” and regrets. We had no such complication as an Aspergers diagnosis, but we did have our challenges as a blended family, and the pain and regrets of struggling against breaking out of my own paradigm to embrace my son for who he is still remain with me to this day. My son knows this; we had a conversation about a year ago about it, and he could not have been more gracious and supportive. Still, listening to Ron’s book brought it back to the surface, and at least for now those regrets from my failures still remain active, even in the joy I have of our family’s unity now.

Today’s Gospel reading, and the other readings today, touch on these issues. Love — in the scriptural sense, caritas or agape, refers to a self-sacrificial love for others that lift them up without regard to our own status. Too often our sense of love falls short even when we think we’ve gotten in right. Ron and I both have track records of trying to pigeonhole our sons into our own frame of mind, assuming that they will be miniature versions of ourselves rather than recognizing that their value comes from their own uniqueness, even if that uniqueness might not feel like a blessing. Other parents no doubt have similar experiences, so I’m certain that we are not unique in that sense, but it takes a long time to discover that you didn’t really know what love is — and still may not. That doesn’t mean we didn’t love our sons, of course, but it just means we didn’t understand it well enough to fully embrace its joys.

Today’s readings give us a glimpse of this caritas, and not just among the apostles and the churches. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas take road trips of their own to spread the Good News of salvation to all. If travel presents its minor annoyances and spiritual speed bumps today, imagine what it would have been like for these two fathers of the Church, traveling through the known world to proclaim the Gospel. They offered up those hardships for the sake of those who needed to hear the Gospel and as an example for them to follow, telling these churches that “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Not only did they persevere for the sake of their own people, but for the Gentiles especially — who had persecuted the Jews for centuries and at several points tried to force idol worship upon them.

Did they do this for the love of God? Of course. But they also did this for the love of God’s children, sacrificing their preconceptions of the world and its people to save others for eternal life.

If that is the story of the founding of the church, then consider the story of creation and salvation that the Bible illustrates. God created man in His own image, that of beings with free will and creative power, who could freely choose whether to live within His love or to reject Him. The Old Testament book Song of Songs is in a literal sense a love song about marital bliss, but symbolically and allegorically also expresses the desire of the Lord to have His people join with Him in a covenant relationship. However, it’s possible to see the entire arc of Scripture as a love song between God and humanity, calling us to return to His embrace of our own free will, from Genesis to Revelation.

In fact, in Revelation 21, John writes of exactly that outcome — that people will return to the Lord, and will dwell in the eternal happiness of true caritas. “He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God,” John is told. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” God the father has not forced His love on us, nor refused it either out of disappointment. He has created each of us with our own uniqueness, our own sets of idiosyncrasies, gifts, and talents, and wants us to use these to come closer to Him and each other. He awaits us as the father awaited the prodigal son, emptying Himself and the grace of the Trinitarian life out for us, especially in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate.

That is true love, the kind to which Christ calls us, and the challenge in which we so often fall short even with those we love the most. Perhaps as we grow wiser, we see that more clearly, and the pain which we feel sharpens our ability to offer that kind of love more fully and responsibly. That’s one prayer in which I take hope, even as I look forward to the time when tears and mourning over sins and shortcomings will have passed away forever in the love of Christ.

Note: After two years, I’ve decided to move the disclaimer/explanation to the bottom of the reflection posts.

Update: Corrected the headline at 3:32 pm ET, and made a minor editing change to one paragraph for better clarity.

The front-page image is “Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles,” by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11), part of the Maestà. Museum Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.