St. Ignati Brianchaninov, in his exceedingly wonderful spiritual book, The Arena, begins his advice to monastics by saying: “We shall be judged according to the commandments of the Gospel” (p. 6). Then, St. Ignati begins his next chapter by saying, “The holy monks of old called the monastic life a life according to the commandments of the Gospel. St. John of the Ladder defines a monk thus: ‘A monk is one who is guided only by the commandments of God and the word of God in every time and place and matter’” (p. 7). Then, turn the page, and the next chapter begins: “He who has based his life on the study of the Gospel and the practice of the commandments of the Gospel has based it on solid rock” (p. 8). He continues: “True Christianity and true monasticism consists in the practice of the commandments of the Gospel. Where this practice is absent, there is neither Christianity nor monasticism, whatever the outward appearance may be” (p. 10). And in page after page, St. Ignati drives the point home: the Christian life is a living of the Gospel Commandments. In fact, in the first ten chapters of The Arena, St. Ignati uses this expression nearly 50 times in 25 pages: commandments of the gospel, or gospel commandments, or evangelical commandments. And in the Gospel reading for today, Christ plainly tells us what these are: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind… Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
And if we were to boil these two Commandments down even further – to one word – what would that be? That word, of course, would be – love! All of the law and the prophets comes down to this. All of our ascetic striving, of our spiritual labors, our church services, our spiritual reading, our repentance – everything comes to these two great Commandments, both of which are intimately linked: to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But what does this word mean: love? This is a word that is horribly abused in our time – almost to the point of losing any meaning. Yet what do we mean, as Christians, when we use the word “love.” To answer this question, we turn to the Apostle of Love, St. John. In his Gospel, we hear Christ’s words: A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another (John 13:34). Christ loved us with his whole soul, his whole body, his whole being. Christ loved us in that he became incarnate to be with us, to live among us, in this fallen world with us. Christ loved us even unto the Cross. And this is Christian love. It is not the cheap sentimentalism or emotionalism that is labelled ‘love’ in much of the culture of our time. It is a love that is co-suffering. It is a love that is vast and deep and all-embracing. As Fr. Thomas Hopko once said: the Christian image of love is not cheap slogans or smiley bumper-stickers. Rather, it is “the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem.” And this idea of Christ-like, self-sacrificing, co-suffering love is all through the Scriptures and our Church tradition. We see it most emphatically in the epistle of St. John, where it is written:
Let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us… God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us… We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (I John 4)
And in our own time, Elder Porphyrios gives us these words:
Whoever wants to become a Christian must… suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love… And when we say ‘love’, we don’t mean the virtues that we will acquire, but the heart that is pervaded by love towards Christ and others. We need to turn everything in this direction. Do we see a mother with her child in her arms and bending to give the child a kiss, her heart overflowing with emotion? Do we notice how her face lights up as she holds her little angel? These things do not escape a person with love of God. He sees them and is impressed by them and he says, ‘If only I had this love towards my God, towards my Holy Lady and our saints!’ Look, that’s how we must love Christ our God. You desire it, you want it, and with the grace of God you acquire it. (Wounded by Love)
But what is the sign that we love God? The fathers tell us that the sign that we truly love God is that we keep his Commandments. St. Ignati Brianchaninov says:
Do you wish to learn the love of God? Assiduously learn the commandments of the Lord in the Gospel, and strive to fulfill them in very deed. Strive to turn the Gospel virtues into habits, into your qualities. For a person who loves, it is natural to fulfill the will of the beloved with exactness…
By the constant shunning of evil and fulfilling of the Gospel virtues—which comprises the whole Gospel moral teaching—we attain the love of God. And by this same means do we abide in the love of God: If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love said the Savior (John 15:10).
The perfection of love consists in union with God; advancing in love is joined with inexpressible spiritual consolation, delight, and enlightenment. But in the beginning of the struggle, the disciple of love must undergo a violent warfare with himself, with his own deeply damaged nature: evil, which through the fall became innate to our nature, has become for it a law, warring and revolting against the Law of God, against the law of holy love.
Love of God is founded on love of one’s neighbor. When the remembrance of wrongs is obliterated in you: then you are close to love. When your heart is overshadowed by holy, grace-given peace towards all humanity: then you are at the very doors of love. But these doors are opened by the Holy Spirit alone. Love of God is a gift from God in a person who has prepared himself to receive this gift by purity of heart, mind, and body (St. Ignati Branchaninov Sermon “Love of God”).
All of our spiritual life is a preparation for this gift. Yet we fail when we take the preparation as the end in itself. We fail when clutch to our own perceived virtues and make idols out of ourselves, our egos, our ascetical practices, our need to please others, and any other thing that we use for our own selfish purposes, and not towards the Gospel Commandments – towards love of God and neighbor. Christ stands at the door of our heart and knocks, but we cannot open the door with hands and fists clutching tightly at our ego and our idols. With all of our perceived talents and virtues, we will be like the foolish virgins who have run out of oil and who’s lamps have gone out. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, these virgins did not lack virtue, as they were virgins, after all. Rather, that had never attained the Holy Spirit. And when Christ comes, catching us by surprise, we will say, “Lord, did I not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? Did I not donate to building projects and charities in your name? Did I not serve on parish council in your name? Was I not a good farmer or administrator or cook or business person in your name? Did I not do all these good things in your name?” And if we did all these things and neglected the Gospel Commandments, we will hear the dreaded words: I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7). For as St. Paul says:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Cor. 13)
Let us keep this in mind, and let us look to the one person in this world who we can say truly loved God with a perfect love: the most Holy Lady Theotokos. For if to love God is to keep His Commandments, what better example do we have than our champion leader, the Theotokos, who spoke the words, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord! Be it unto me according to Thy word! If to love as a Christian, and as Christ loved, is to suffer – to suffer for the one that we love, who better to exemplify this than the Mother of God, who suffered in spirit with Her Son at the foot of the Cross, and of whom St. Simon prophesied: Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.
What we hear in this Commandment in today’s Gospel reading, and what is new in this Commandment, is that we are told to be of one heart with our Heavenly Father – to participate in His love. We are called – and even commanded – to love in the same way that He loves.
If we begin to strive and struggle, spiritually, with a mind on these commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor – then God will send us the gift of grace to destroy the old man and break our stony hearts and of our entrenched egos. And over time, God’s grace will work on us without us even realizing it. We will learn, with God’s grace, to love people at a greater cost, with a greater purity, with less selfishness, with more patience and a more generous heart. We begin in the small things, and as time goes by, God will lead us into the kind of love He calls us to posses and to share – a love which is life-giving, which is light, which is joy, which is faith, which is the beginning of true life and of eternity here and now. Amen.