GOD IS LOVE. We know this. We don’t often follow it to a logical conclusion though: you did something I don’t like therefore I must remind you that God is love. We may never get around to exploring that the Love spoken of is always in the 1st person: it’s not something that we demand of others, it’s what we do that matters. How do we get from God is Love to knowing what to do with it? What is it, in the first person, that matters about this love? This seems somehow to be connected to the idea that we are created in God’s image and likeness. If we weave all this together can we better understand who God is, who we are, and who we are called to be?
There is an earlier essay on Eros which should be seen as a prelude to this post. That post details the four kinds of love used in the Greek language. Of these four types, we learn God is love in 1 John 4:8: God is “agape.” In our Christian tradition, we have come to understand agape as a sort of divine, all-embracing, “inclusive” love generally seen as unromantic, unpassionate, unerotic, and – ultimately -unemotional. St Thomas describes this agape as willing the good of the other. But, as noted in the earlier post, we may be too rigid in parsing out how the “Four Loves” relate to each other. These loves seem to be more interrelated than we usually treat them. The Latin of the Catechism, for example (see that essay) mixes up the loves of desire, disinterest, and charity. Pope Benedict (also cited in that essay) underscores God’s desire for us. The Biblical authors also did not parse out their loves into strict categories. The first time “agape” shows up in the Biblical World is to describe the love between the Bride and the Groom in the Song of Songs!
“The Sept. use ἀγάπη for אַהֲבָה, Song of Solomon 2:4, 5, 7; Song of Solomon 3:5, 10; Song of Solomon 5:8; Song of Solomon 7:6; Song of Solomon 8:4, 6, 7; (“It is noticeable that the word first makes its appearance as a current term in the Song of Solomon; — certainly no undesigned evidence respecting the idea which the Alexandrian LXX translators had of the love in this Song” (Zezschwitz, Profangraec. u. Biblical Sprachgeist, p. 63)); Jeremiah 2:2; Ecclesiastes 9:1, 6; (2 Samuel 13:15).Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
Yes, there are generations of Biblical Scholars who try very hard to make us understand that Solomon and his Bride are not talking about Erotic Love. But, they are Blanche, they are! This erotic love is the reason St Paul says the love of husband and wife is like the mystery of Christ and the Church. The two become one flesh. There is a way in which Agape and Eros are the same thing. And there’s a way in which this tells us more about who God made us to be.
While God’s love is desirous and not at all disinterested, God’s love has one quality that we do not usually associate with human love – but the Church specifically attaches to Marital Love: self-emptying. The fancy theological term is kenosis. In the Bible, kenosis is found in Philippians 2:7. The translation takes various forms saying Jesus, as the Son of God, “emptied himself”, “made himself of no reputation”, “made himself nothing”, etc. This is how the Son of God expresses his love for us. This same action is how all Christian love is expressed (not just between a husband and wife): we give away ourselves. All Christians are called to Chastity as governed by our state in life. Chastity means maintaining the integrity of our person in self-mastery in order to be able to make a full and total gift of self as our vocation unfolds. If you wonder at this, drop into the Catechism at ¶2337 and read to ¶2350 on how chastity and self-gift are tied together. Chastity makes Kenosis possible in humans.
Why is this important? Because in this action – our self-emptying – we imitate the Son of God as he is imitating his Father. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” John 5:19. Jesus does only what he sees the Father doing. God is love – this means that God is this Kenotic Love in action. We move from the noun, “Agape” to the verb “Agapao“. Love – like God – is a verb. Again, the English-speaking writers of the dictionary seem to be coming to the verb with some (Victorian?) biases. A usage study of the word, though, is important: the sinful woman is said to “love much” and the Pharisees “love” to be honored. These are not simple preferences or choices but rather passions. I prefer cotton shirts over linen. I do not feel the same way about butter pecan ice cream, though.
As the Father empties himself into the Son, so the Son empties himself for us and we are to empty ourselves for others. “Others” here refers to all others for we are to love all and, again, that’s not intended to be a warm, squishy kind of love. It is “willing the good of the other”, certainly, but rather you should hear that to mean we are to be filled with a burning and passionate desire for the Good of the Other and there is only one Good: to be a Saint. You cannot say you love someone and be satisfied with them going to hell. If you’re even passively ok with them going to hell, or if you’re afraid they won’t like you, then you’re pretty much not passionate about loving them.
We’ve explored that Eros and Agape may be more of the same thing than expected and that they both bring us to kenosis or self-emptying. If a Self-emptying, Passionate Desire for the Good of the Other is the meaning of “Love” then what does this teach us about our God who is Love? To get to the answer to this question we must go deeper into what God actually is. Or, more to the point, How God Is and how that plays out. That’s for the next post.