There is a story about a time in the ancient Roman Empire when it was forbidden to teach the Torah, and a courageous rabbi continued teaching it despite the ban.
When the Romans discovered him, they arrested the rabbi and took him into custody. Then they condemned the rabbi to death, ordering that he be burned alive. While he was being burned, the rabbi began to sing the Jewish Shema’, the great commandment of God recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, which the Jews considered to be a summary of the entire law:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.Dt 6:4-5
Seeing this incredibly moving sight, a bystander asked the rabbi why he was singing this even as he was being burned alive. The rabbi replied, “Up to this point in my life, I have known what it meant to love the Lord with all of my heart and with all of my strength. Now I know what it means to love Him with all of my soul.”
The story of this rabbi gives a compelling answer to a question poets, philosophers and theologians have asked and attempted to answer throughout the ages, namely, “What is love?”
Some of the most basic truths of our faith are also some of the easiest to ignore or to “water down.” This can be due to over-familiarity; it can also be due to our tendency to try to manipulate the truth so that it accommodates our weakness.
Especially with a word like “love,” there are strong cultural temptations to water down the truth. When people today think about love, they tend to see it as a matter of feelings and self-fulfillment rather than as a gift from God and a gift of self. But any of us who have persevered in difficult family relationships or friendships know that love is a gift, one often given at great cost.
In no love is the cost clearer and higher than in our exchange of love with God. Jesus comes to us as the fulfillment of the Law (Mt 5:17), the One who tells us that the whole Law is summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. He himself is the perfect revelation of God’s love for us and the “ladder” upon which our love for God ascends. Jesus’ love for us cost him his very life when he died upon the Cross for us. He not only told us what is the greatest form of love (Jn 15:13); he showed us.
Our love for God, then, is a response to the supernova of love that radiates from the Cross of Christ. We love because God has first loved us (I Jn 4:19). Whereas the world is tempted to think of love symbolized by Cupid’s arrow piercing a human heart, we know that the truest love is revealed when the Son of God allows his Heart to be pierced with a soldier’s lance. God has died for us, and blood and water pour out to show us the new life we have in Him, especially in Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
If you are ever tempted to wonder what is the meaning of your life, remember that it is rooted in the love of God. Your life has a deeper and richer meaning than we can possibly imagine. But today’s Gospel makes it clear that the meaning of your life doesn’t stop with receiving God’s love. It doesn’t even stop with loving God in return. The meaning of your life is also to love other people, to love your neighbor as yourself.
Love of God and love of neighbor are so closely bound together that they can never be separated. Remember that in Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that we will be judged in large measure based upon whether or not we loved others, and that our love of them is really love for him:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.Mt 25:35-36
The deepest and most intense human need is our hunger and thirst for the love of God. And so the most important way for us to love our neighbors is to bring them to Jesus Christ, to his Church, where they can find and be filled with God’s love. By helping people to encounter Christ in his Church, we fulfill the meaning of our own lives and help others discover the meaning of their lives.
It has become clear in recent years that the need of so many around us is desperately urgent. People are losing their connections with God and each other, losing their sense of meaning and purpose, losing at times even the will to live. Christ is the answer to this crisis of the human heart!
We must prepare for the mission of evangelization by understanding our identity as Catholics and our share in the mission of Jesus: “to bring glad tidings to the poor … to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19).
We shouldn’t kid ourselves; to love our neighbor by sharing the Gospel in this way will cost us. True love always costs. Evangelization is not easy, especially in a world that so often opposes our faith and our way of life. The whole history of the Church is filled with examples of those who have given everything to bring Christ to people and people to Christ. But the cost, as steep as it is, does not compare to the reward, “the immeasurable riches of (God’s) grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7).
Not only does loving God and our neighbor fulfill the meaning and purpose of our lives, but Jesus promises that we and those we love and bring to faith in him will inherit the Kingdom of God, now and forever.
A version of this article was originally published in Detroit Catholic.