In English, "love" has related but distinct meanings in different contexts. We can love our new golf clubs or juicer, we can love a particular restaurant or recipe, we love a particular kind of plant in our flower garden better than others; we can love the Packers, the Bears or the Vikings; we can love a certain movie, t.v. show or book; we can love a certain locale for vacationing or a certain style of furniture or type of music or sport. But is that strong preference really love? Of course not.
But what exactly is love? An emotion related to a sense of strong affection and attachment. Feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from generic pleasure to interpersonal attraction? The diversity of uses and meanings, combined with the complexity of the feelings involved, makes love unusually difficult to consistently define. As an abstract concept, love refers to a deep, almost impossible to describe feeling of tenderly caring for another person. Love is different feelings: passionate desire and intimacy of romantic love; to the nonsexual emotional closeness of familial and friendship love; profound oneness or devotion of religious love. Love is a major facilitator of interpersonal relationships. I found over 200 titles of pop songs written in the last 60 years that have love in the title! That is a real trip down memory lane from the sixties and made me realize where that warped and shallow notion of love I had as a young person came from. All those hours of listening to the radio and American Bandstand music!
Although the nature or essence of love is a subject of frequent debate, different aspects of the word can be clarified by determining what love isn't. It is stronger than like. It is contrasted with friendship. It is contrasted with hate or indifference and apathy. It is commonly contrasted with lust. St. Paul tells us all the behaviors that love isn't.
Other languages use multiple words to express the varieties of love, while English relies mainly on the word "love" to name all kinds of love. Cultural differences in conceptualizing love thus make it hard to establish any universal definition, yet some would say that love is the international language, erasing cultural and linguistic divisions.
Abstractly, love usually refers to interpersonal connection, an experience felt by a person for another person, often with romantic overtones. Love often involves caring for or identifying with a person or thing, including oneself.
Both philosophy and religion have speculated on the phenomenon of love. In the last century, love has been a focus of psychology. More recently the sciences, like evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and biology, have added to the understanding of the nature and function of love. Some study the chemical basis, some as a mammalian drive like thirst or hunger, in the service of survival of the species. Some see love as three overlapping stages. though they see it differently. Take your pick..... intimacy, commitment, and passion; lust, attraction, and attachment; attachment, caring, and intimacy. Some, like M. Scott Peck, maintain that love is a combination of the "concern for the spiritual growth of another," and simple narcissism. Bishop Spong says, "Love is entering God."
All too often, love is commonly reduced to a thought-terminating cliche, as will be found in two weeks on sentimental Valentine cards and in commercials for jewelry, candy and flowers. Unrequited love is the stuff of which so many of those sappy love songs are written about!
We can examine what love is interpersonally and impersonally. We can look at it philosophically, scientifically, historically, or culturally, but since we are in church, we maybe should focus on the spiritual meaning of love. I hesitate to say that we should look at love from a religious perspective, because far too much of what has been done in the name of religion has been unloving. In fact, we could say, "STOP, in the name of Love!" to the church today.
We can love an object, principle, or goal if we value it highly and have a deep commitment to it. Maybe loving creation and trying to stop global warming, pollution of all kinds and preserving the rain forests, would fit here? We can love material objects, animals, or activities if we invest ourselves in bonding and identifying with those things. Preserving antiquities, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, caring for our pets and all life threatened with extinction, and working to stamp out a certain disease, might fit here? All these actions would be love.
Compassionate outreach and volunteer workers' "love" of their cause is borne not of interpersonal love, but impersonal love, altruism and strong convictions about justice. We have recently seen that in the many rescue teams in Haiti and in particular the French and Israeli teams that persevered after others gave up hope and departed. We saw it after September 11, in '01, the tsunami in '04 and Katrina in '05. People everywhere sought to help those effected by disasters. But should it take a disaster for most people to live love? Don't needs exist regardless of disasters? How do we live love in ordinary time when there are no horrifying disasters to focus on?
Saint Paul told the quarreling Christian Community at Corinth, love is the most important virtue of all. Love is:
Patience and kindness.
Generous, not envious;
Modest, not boastful;
Humble, not proud;
Polite, not rude;
Altruistic, not self-seeking;
Tolerant and accepting, not easily angered;
Forgiving, not a grudging recorder of wrongs;
Joyful about the truth, not delighted by evil.
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres."
Let me repeat that.
Love is patience and kindness. Love is generous, modest, humble, polite, altruistic, tolerant, forgiving, joyful.
Love protects, trusts, hopes and persists. Love doesn't give up. Especially in ordinary time.
Love is a whole series of actions within relationships, not simply a feeling about a person or event, or group, or thing. It isn't romance or lust, roses or candlelight, hallmark cards and gifts, or sentimentalism.
Love is a choice. For each of us.
Love is a decision. For each of us.
Love is a challenge. Especially for Christians.
To love one another as we are loved by God, to love others as ourselves, to love even our enemies, to love God above all else in our lives, to lay down our lives in the willing sacrifice of our own selfishness in order to serve others, to endure all, to persevere even in the face of difficulty and others' rejection, judgments and even unjust persecution......well, that is our supreme Christian challenge. It is the measure of Christian existence. It is what distinguished the earliest Christians from all others in their societies, their willingness to live love. Does it distinguish us today?
As we prepare to participate in this Eucharist meal, we have the prayerful opportunity to reflect on how we are meeting that challenge to live love as a Christian community, and in our individual relationships.
What springs to my mind right now is that we can make that choice and decide to meet the challenge to live love as we work for those in our communities who are homeless. Cooking food, packing lunches, listening to their stories of suffering, helping them to hope, transporting supplies, giving our time, our treasure and our talent. That is a choice. That is a decision. That is action. That is God with us. That is entering God. That is how we live love.