Today’s short gospel reading begins the lengthy farewell discourse of Jesus given at the last supper. He tells his apostles, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Why does Jesus call it a new commandment? Is it not essentially the same as the “old” commandment articulated in Leviticus 19:18, which speaks of loving one’s neighbor as oneself? In substance, they are the same: love your neighbor. What is new is the standard of such love. Jesus asks his disciples to love one another, not just as they love themselves, but as he loves them.
On that night, he demonstrates his kind of love by kneeling in front of his apostles and washing their feet. They too should wash each other’s feet. The day after, he would show the extent of his love and prove it by giving his life for them. They too should be ready to give their life for each other. The newness of Jesus’ commandment then is in its measure - his own love, which is without measure. Thus, John testifies, “He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.” (Jn 13:1)
As disciples, we too are to love our neighbor, as Jesus loves us. Is that possible? We know that Jesus’ love is self-sacrificing, total and unconditional, while ours is full of ego and lacking of courage and generosity. Are we capable of loving as Jesus loves? I believe so. God does not ask us to do something we cannot do. If Jesus commands us to love as he does, he will also empower us to do so.
How? Loving as Jesus loves is possible only by the grace of being first loved by Jesus. We know from psychology that a person learns to love only when he is loved, for love is primarily a response. Thus, children who grow up deprived of love find difficulty in loving and relating with others.
By loving us, God fills us with his own love. Paul puts it more graphically, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Rm 5:5) Thus, through the Spirit we are enabled to love as God loves - as Jesus loves us.
Last week I had the grace of visiting the diocese of Thai Binh in North Vietnam. It has 140,000 Catholics, with some 180 priests and about the same number of seminarians. Their churches and facilities are big and beautiful, all built from their own local contributions. 75% of the faithful go to Mass daily. I’ve never seen such fervent and palpable faith.
One experience that I value most was my visit to the shrines of their martyrs. Vietnam has 117 canonized martyrs who died for the faith, and 50 of them come from that diocese. The bishop told me that there are 3,000 more whose canonization is being processed.
We are capable of loving as Christ loves. The martyrs of Vietnam were mostly simple people, peasants and even children. We have been given the capacity to love with Christ’s own love. We may never have the chance to prove it by martyrdom. But we have every opportunity to live it daily by denying ourselves in order that others may live, like when we serve especially those most in need. This self-sacrificing love which is possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit is the distinguishing mark of every disciple of Christ. This new commandment and new way of loving is what creates “a new heaven and a new earth.”