A couple of weeks ago, on Good Shepherd Sunday, I discussed ways that God expressed his ultimate love for us by emptying himself (kenosis). First, in the Incarnation, he humbly unified his divine nature with our human nature, and then he again emptied his very life when he died on the cross for our salvation. Eros Agape

This Sunday’s readings are also about love — specifically, how God has shown his love for us and how we are called to respond by loving him in return and loving others. In the gospel reading, Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” In other words, he exemplifies love in action, and we are challenged to imitate this divine love as best we can in our humanity.

To unpack the concept of love as it applies to both human and divine, I will refer to the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate entitled, Deus Caritas Est: On Christian Love (2005). For my purposes here, I will only be reflecting on Part I, in which the pope thoroughly defines love. However, if you are interested in exploring the document further, Part II deals with how love informs and illuminates the missionary character of the Church through charitable activity and social justice.

Benedict first identifies the problem of language when describing love, stating, “Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings.” We use the word “love” to describe how we feel about people, our favorite foods and movies, our pets, and our country. However, we can’t love everything in the same way, or the word would be effectively meaningless. To address this problem of language, Benedict turns to Greek words to give us a deeper understanding of human and divine love and how they work together to transcend worldly definitions and sentiments.

Eros

Eros describes the type of love that is a desire for another. Typically, this feeling of love is spontaneous and unwilled and the result of attraction at the subconscious level. While it certainly includes physical attraction, it is also a response to qualities such as goodness and truth. Eros drives us to be united with the object of our desire. In and of itself, eros is a necessary and good form of love. As Benedict states, “From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive…” Eros is the force that moves us to be in relationships with others and to have families.

However, when eros is left unchecked and undisciplined, it can quickly turn into disordered lust and a platform for self-serving gratification while objectifying the other. Noting that man was created to live in union with God, Benedict explains that immature eros can be to the detriment of that union, saying:

An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.

Man was created with both a body and a soul, and he is most truly himself when the body and soul are intimately united. Therefore, we cannot wholly dismiss the flesh, contrary to what the world believes about Christianity. Instead, we need to tame it with self-control and virtue in order to rightly honor the dignity of ourselves and those we love.

Agape

Agape is the word used for self-giving love. This type of love is solely concerned with others to the point of sacrificing one’s own desires for the good of the other. “No longer is it self-seeking… instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it…is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.” Agape is not a love of sentiment and emotions but one of the will, in which you make choices to serve another even if that choice is not immediately aligned with your feelings.

Benedict explains that agape becomes paradoxical since the more you give of yourself, the more you grow in self-knowledge and divine knowledge. This results in a deeper union, both physically and spiritually, with you, the other, and God. This multi-dimensional love transcends time and space and moves us towards the eternal for which we were created. Benedict states:

Love is indeed “ecstasy,” not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.

This is ultimately the essence of our human existence.

The Interplay Between Eros and Agape

As mentioned earlier, over the centuries, Christianity has been accused of downplaying eros in favor of agape, mainly due to misconceptions regarding the flesh. I also stated that man was made with both a body and soul, which, in equal balance, compose the whole and complete man. Furthermore, Jesus, a divine being, took on human flesh, not to show the evil of flesh, but rather, to elevate its very dignity. Therefore, our bodies are good, and we are to treat them with respect according to Jesus’ example. So, we are not supposed to downplay or reject eros, but instead, we are to handle it with maturity. Once eros and agape are balanced, we can love as we are meant to. To describe this balance, Benedict says:

Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love — eros — able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.

We also cannot love solely from the perspective of agape or else we would never be able to receive the love that God certainly desires for us. Eros, then, is the source of our attraction to others, drawing us into relationships. As we respond to eros with maturity, agape emerges and develops, and the two become mutually dependent on one another for the good of both parties, who both give of themselves and receive that gift. Benedict says that when we lean more heavily toward one form of love or another, “the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love.”

Divine Love

We can turn to our divine model to further illustrate how eros and agape work together. God’s love for each of us contains both eros and agape. Throughout your life, God has passionately pursued you, desiring a deep, intimate relationship with you and longing for your love. This passionate pursuit, which culminated in his self-sacrificial love (agape), is for your ultimate good. The appropriate response to this gift of love is to pursue God passionately and offer your entire being and life back to him as a sacrificial gift. As part of that gift of self, offer the same passionate pursuit and self-sacrificing love to others since we are all members of the same body of Christ and each person you encounter is loved by God as much as he loves you. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

This week, meditate on eros and agape, their differences, and their interconnectedness. Identify the times in your life when you have felt God’s eros for you and how it was fully revealed as agape on Calvary. Identify the times you have concretely responded to his love for you in kind by pursuing your desires for God and others and have offered yourself as a sacrificial gift. Finally, look for an opportunity to express agapeic love to another person — particularly if it is challenging — in honor of Jesus’ sacrifice for you.

The Chaplet of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity – This chaplet invokes the help of the angels, saints, and Christ Himself to protect our chastity and purity as we navigate the dangers and temptations of our lives.

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