Love as beginning and end

Reflections on Love as Beginning and End

Speaking of the Word Who was to become flesh, St John tells us that, in the beginning, all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. From this we can see that it is through the Word that God gives us the world. To spell this out in Trinitarian terms means that creation receives itself as a gift from the Father through His eternal generation of the Son in the Holy Spirit. And when the Son is sent into the world, His redemptive mission both extends to us and reveals to us His eternal generation from the Father in the Spirit. This means we can perceive creation truly only when we contemplate redemption, we can see what it means to be flesh only in the Son’s mission to the flesh. And for St John, the Son’s mission is a mission of Love. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…not to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved. So if the Son’s mission is a mission of Love, then creation, originating through the Son, comes from Love as well. In St John’s teaching, the world is loved into being, it is loved from the beginning, Love is its first and originating horizon, and what we call salvation is both the revelation and the consummation of a Love in which all things begin and end.

To be saved is to come to know the Love which, from first to last, gives the world to itself; we are not saved apart from the world, or in spite of it, but according to the truth of the world, the truth that it is loved unconditionally, beyond all condemnation except the self-condemnation of refusing to believe in being loved. Christianity is, ultimately, this believing, believing that the world is loved, with the Love that is disclosed on the Cross. On the Cross, the world – so long disfigured, estranged and contradictory – returns to itself: unburdened, clarified and released, the world finds itself and shows itself as if for the first time. This is the meaning of the Cross. Salvation means that, at long last, the world can see itself and speak itself; and when this happens, what the world speaks is that its reason is Love.

To say that the reason of the world is Love is to say that its reason is beyond Reason, beyond anything that we can think or grasp in concepts or speech. Creation, redemption and the whole destiny of the world have no reason, in the sense of being founded in any kind of systematic explanation, but instead are utterly unfounded, or – put another way – are founded as Love alone can found things, in which every why remains, in the end, unresolved except by the event of love.

Having come to the Love that unfolds itself on the Cross, then, we discover that the human desire for systematic explanation, our impulse to grasp and possess in thoughts and words, must be rendered destitute. Faced with this Love, we must confess that we can no longer understand or explain but can only consent to wait to receive, and to be first unmade, then remade, inspired and renewed, from what lies beyond ourselves. In this destitution of the impulse to seize and comprehend, there is necessarily obscurity, un-knowing, abandonment: such states are what we might call the negativities of Love, the shadows it casts in order to hinder the certainties of vision and therefore express itself freely. But Love’s free self-expression, although it lies beyond understanding, is by no means therefore something indeterminate. What Love establishes and communicates is a way of being which is absolutely focussed and concrete, but which can be discerned and lived only in its own terms, which nothing else can translate or replace. For has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? St Paul asks – meaning the wisdom the world seeks in proving and comprehending. Such wisdom is henceforward unmasked as the world’s refusal to remain faithful to the embrace in which Love alone sustains it. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God, through the folly of what we preach, to save those who believe. And this folly is salvation, the Cross, Christ crucified – the foolishness and the weakness of Love.

A unique order, a singular logic, unfolds here, which is the order and logic of the Word, eternally  begotten by the Father and given to us, historically, in the flesh. We should not be misled into thinking of the Word as pre-eminently an expression of what we call Reason. When the Father eternally generates the Son, this isn’t at the most fundamental level a work of Reason, as if in the Son the Father were primarily thinking or speaking Himself. St John tells us that God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son. The Word is given us in love, and this givenness is a revelation of the Love in which the Son is eternally given to Himself. Eternally and in time, the Word is spoken only in Love. And so everything merely known, everything apparently demonstrated and secured independently of what Love alone can intend and accomplish, must first be challenged and then broken open.

To show us this, on the Cross the Word Himself is pierced, broken open, so that the Love by which, in eternity, He is spoken may be spoken also to the world. And in this breaking open of the Word, the whole architecture of things begins to shift. How readily we think we can know in advance of loving; how readily we prefer to know as an alternative to loving. But starting from the Cross, and flowing from there as the redemption and restoration of all things, this whole impulse to know independently of Love, and instead of Love, is subject to reversal. The temple veil, symbolizing the cosmic rationality of Law and Order, now tears asunder: the ground gives way, the landscape fractures, even the finality of the grave unravels and Death itself is surpassed. In these signs of upheaval, Love reverberates in ways that Reason can neither foresee nor encompass. Because creation originates in Love, only Love can renew it and lead it home.

It is when Death is surpassed that the renewal which belongs to Love alone is manifested more clearly and potently than anywhere else. For Reason, by contrast, is haunted by Death. Our attempts to explain and understand it are a striving after a kind of immortality, a permanence and a security, which is provoked in us by the anxiety of our mortality. But death resists Reason; whatever understanding and explanation we have managed to stitch together must sooner or later fall silent when Death overtakes us: Death cancels intelligibility in its implacable resistance to Reason’s every effort to penetrate it. Whatever Death means – if in fact it means anything at all – can neither be explained nor understood: it is as opaque as it is unavoidable and final, we can see neither into it nor beyond it. In this intractable difficulty, it is hard to find anything to hold onto in the disembodied, often barely coherent picture of immortality which, even at its best, is all that Reason can provide. Towards death and into dying, Reason cannot sustain us. We can be sustained there only by Divine Love – by the will of the One Who cannot die to give us the Life that is His.

But of course, faced with the Cross, it seems strange to speak of the One Who cannot die. For if the Cross means anything at all, it means that the Eternal Son has Himself died. In the death of Jesus the Eternal Son undergoes death Personally, in Person, and therefore as Son of Man and as Son of God. For what does the Word made flesh actually mean? It doesn’t mean that the Word extends into creation a humanity, and eventually a mortality, which He merely uses rather than actually becomes. The Word made flesh means the Word does not just handle flesh, but enters into it; and therefore He truly dies the death that is ours.

And at that point, when salvation and renewal are most at stake, it seems that the death of the Word spells the defeat of Love, the incapacity even of Love itself to hold out against what always threatens and, finally, overwhelms us.

In facing the apparent defeat of Love, we enter into what is simultaneously the most difficult and the most decisive dimension of salvation. It is true that the Word of Love becomes flesh; it is true that the Word of Love dies on the Cross. But when He becomes flesh, and even when He dies in the flesh, it is essential to understand that the Word of Love does not change, does not become other than Himself. No – what changes is the flesh He becomes. In other words, humanity changes – what humanity is, and what it can be, is transformed, when the Word unreservedly pours Himself out into it.

When He pours Himself out, empties Himself, into mortal flesh, the Word speaks Himself as He is, as the Eternal Son of the Father, but He does this not in Divine but in human form, in the form of a human being; He empties Himself into that form, translating into the dimensions of a human life everything that makes Him Who He is; His humanity, the humanity of Jesus, therefore contains and enacts what is poured or emptied into it, and that is none other than the Son Himself, translating Himself as man.

And so when that man, Jesus, dies, even this is a moment in the translation of the Word into flesh: it reveals to us not only that a man can die – for this hardly needed revealing – but it also reveals – and this is the heart of the mystery of salvation – it also reveals that a man’s death can be a translation of Divine Life. There is, in the eternal life of the Son, that which, when emptied into human form, can express itself even as dying. Divine life shows Itself humanly according to a form which embraces human dying and being dead.

The Word finds, then, not apart from His Divine life but rather within it, that which allows Him, as flesh, to enter into radical solidarity with the dead: and to be in solidarity with them precisely in their estrangement from Him, an estrangement which He endures to the end and overcomes, because He sustains it by encompassing it. Human death is taken in by Divine Life and, within that Life, human death is both endured by God and overcome by God. Before this mystery, Reason hesitates and is baffled; only Love can embrace it. To receive salvation is to perform that embrace and to live by it.  And of course we can do so only because we are ourselves always already embraced, by the Love which is the very foundation of the world.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.
St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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