Perfect love, given entirely for another’s happiness.
The Love That Gets Us to Heaven
Agape is the love within the Holy Trinity. Rabbi Yeshua tells us that, “the Father loves [agapa] me” Jn 10:17. We reflect God’s glory back to him by loving him with this perfect love. “You shall love [agapeseis] the Lord your God” Mt 22:37.
We reflect God‘s glory to our neighbors by loving them with the same perfect love. “You shall love [agapeseis] your neighbor as yourself” Mt 22:39. Even to our enemies! “Love [agapate] your enemies” Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27. Rabbi Yeshua raised his command for us from “as yourself” to “Love [agapate] one another; even as I have loved [egapesa] you Jn 13:34.
In the Dawn of Creation, God spoke his mighty name, EHYEH, “I AM” Ex 3:14. We say it, YHWH, “HE IS.” When Rabbi Yokhanan tells us that God is love, he is speaking directly of God‘s nature. “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” 1 Jn 4:8. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” 1 Jn 4:16.
There are only three theological virtues infused by God into his faithful. The greatest, even among these, is love. Rabbi Paul tells us, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” 1 Cor 13:13.
(Sometimes, agape is translated as “charity.” The two words mean essentially the same thing, preferring another person’s joy above our own.)
Rabbi Yeshua, asked for the great commandment in the law, replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:37–40. His meaning is crystal clear: § 1022 At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.
But what do we mean by love? We moderns have so abased our English word “love” that when we are violating the Sixth Commandment we call it “making love.” Holy Mother Church wisely retains the Greek word agape to keep its meaning clear.
Rabbi Yeshua loves us so much that he freely chose the Cross, for us. How many of us could endure the Cross for three hours for our own cherished wife? He endured it for all who had sinned against him. In the New and Eternal Covenant he expects the same of us. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love [agapate] one another; even as I have loved [egapesa] you, that you also love [agapate] one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love [agapen] for one another” Jn 13:34–35. He knew we could not reach that standard so he gave us Penance and Reconciliation, but that is the mark we strive for. Kneeling humbly before Rabbi Yeshua in the little booth actually helps us concentrate on him rather than on ourselves.
Rabbi Paul described agape: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” 1 Cor 13:4–7. True love is given for another person’s happiness. False love is given for what we can get from that person.
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables 1:58:08, after Jean Valjean’s release from the slave labor camp, he is taken in by a bishop who displays agape love. Temptation overcomes Valjean; he steals silver items from the bishop’s cupboard and escapes into the foggy night. The authorities find Valjean with the silver and bring him, and the bag of silver, back to the bishop, who surprises them all by saying that he had given Valjean the silver. Moreover, the bishop gives Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks saying, “You forgot I gave these also.” After the authorities leave and they are in private, the bishop tells Valjean, “Remember this my brother, see in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness: I have bought your soul for God.”
Rabbi Yeshua commanded us, “You shall love [agapeseis] the Lord your God” Mt 22:37and raised his command for us from “as yourself” to “Love [agapate] one another; even as I have loved [egapesa] you” Jn 13:34. We must be exceedingly careful to love God for his own magnificent glory and perfection, not the heavenly kingdom we hope to receive from him. And we must be careful to love each man or woman we encounter the same way, to please him or her, not for what we hope to receive.
Some Scripture translations render the Greek agape as “charity,” from the Latin caritas, which has the same meaning as agape. Pope Benedict XVI speaks on Christian love in Deus caritas est. § 1 “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16).
A popular version of the Act of Contrition recognizes the weakness of our fallen race by acknowledging that we are sorry for our sins, “Because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell.” However, it immediately acknowledges: “but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.”
The Uphill Journey to Heaven
Koine Greek had three words for the English word “love”: agape, phileo, and eros.
Philia, or phileo, is the Greek word used in the Gospels to describe friendship or brother love. Its opposite is phobia. Its most common form is friendship, but it can also apply to compassion for people in need and welcome for the stranger.
Pope Benedict XVI, in Deus caritas est “God is Love,” December 25, 2005, § 3, says, “As for the term philia, the love of friendship, it is used with added depth of meaning in Saint John’s Gospel in order to express the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.” And the entire body of authoritative Catholic teaching on eros is contained in Deus caritas est.
Rabbi Yeshua showed us the steep spiritual climb from phileo to agape. Just before he ascended to the Father, he wanted to show Rabbi Kefa the spiritual level that he would need after the Holy Spirit descended. Rabbi Yeshua asked Rabbi Kefa, “Simon, son of John, do you love me [agapas me] more than these?” Rabbi Kefa replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you [filo se].” Rabbi Yeshua then told Rabbi Kefa, “Feed my lambs” Jn 21:15. A second time Rabbi Yeshua asked Rabbi Kefa, “Simon, son of John, do you love me [agapas me]?” Rabbi Kefa answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you [filo se].” Rabbi Yeshua told Rabbi Kefa, “Tend my sheep” Jn 21:16. A third time Rabbi Yeshua asked Rabbi Kefa, “Simon, son of John, do you love me [fileis me]?” Rabbi Kefa, grieved, replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you [filo se]..” Rabbi Yeshua told Rabbi Kefa, “Feed my sheep” Jn 21:17.
Our English translations do not fully mirror Rabbi Yokhanan‘s original Greek in this conversation. Rabbi Yeshua asked whether Rabbi Kefa loved him with agape [perfect] love, but Rabbi Kefa replied with fileo, [friendly] love [filo se]. Again Rabbi Yeshua tried to get Rabbi Kefa to reply agapo se, but again Rabbi Kefa replied, filo se. When Rabbi Yeshua saw Rabbi Kefa‘s grief that his spiritual level extended only as high as fileo, Rabbi Yeshua comforted him by asking, fileis me, and at last Rabbi Kefa could reply to Rabbi Yeshua at the same fileo level, filo se.
But after Pentecost, in his epistles, Rabbi Kefa consistently used agape, except when he needed philadelphia to express brotherly love. “Without having seen him you love [agapate] him” 1 Pet 1:8. Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren [philadelphian], love one another [agapesate] earnestly from the heart 1 Pet 1:22. “Love [agapate] the brotherhood [adelphoteta]” 1 Pet 2:17.
The Septuagint contains the word eros only in the Book of Proverbs,
The first use is Prov 7:18: The RSV2CE translates it, “Come, let us take our fill of love [philia] till morning; let us delight ourselves with love [eros].” The Septuagint’s original Greek says, “… orthrou [dawn] deuro [coming of] kai [and] enkylisthomen [let us reel] eroti [in erotic love].” Benedict XVI himself supplies the best explanation of the original Hebrew. § 6 “First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love.”
The second is Prov 30:16. The RSV2CE translates it, “Sheol, the barren womb [eros], the earth ever thirsty for water, and the fire which never says, ‘Enough.’” The Septuagint’s original Greek says, “Hades [Sheol] kai [and] eros [erotic] gynaikos [woman or wife] …” The sense of it is, put delicately, a womb ever hungry for a man’s presence.
The original Greek New Testament manuscripts do not contain the word eros anywhere.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not anywhere contain the words eros or erotic.
Eros, Philia, Agape
Pope Benedict XVI tells us in Deus Caritas Est (DCE), § 3, “Let us note straight away that the Greek Old Testament uses the word eros only twice, while the New Testament does not use it at all: of the three Greek words for love, eros, philia (the love of friendship) and agape, New Testament writers prefer the last, which occurs rather infrequently in Greek usage. As for the term philia, the love of friendship, it is used with added depth of meaning in Saint John’s Gospel in order to express the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love.
Benedict observes that the pre-Christian world considered eros an overpowering of reason by a “divine madness.” He says in DCE § 4, “The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity. But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of erosactually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. … 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.”
DCE § 5 “Man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. … True, eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”
DCE § 6 “Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification entail? How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics. According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love. In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate ‘love’. First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, ‘searching’ love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”
DCE § 9 “The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images. God’s relationship with Israel is described using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage; idolatry is thus adultery and prostitution. Here we find a specific reference—as we have seen—to the fertility cults and their abuse of eros, but also a description of the relationship of fidelity between Israel and her God. The history of the love-relationship between God and Israel consists, at the deepest level, in the fact that he gives her the Torah, thereby opening Israel’s eyes to man’s true nature and showing her the path leading to true humanism. It consists in the fact that man, through a life of fidelity to the one God, comes to experience himself as loved by God, and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness—a joy in God which becomes his essential happiness: “Whom do I have in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you … for me it is good to be near God” (Ps 73 :25, 28).”
DCE § 10 “We have seen that God’s eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God’s love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed ‘adultery’ and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst’ (Hos 11:8-9).”
DCE § 12, “Though up to now we have been speaking mainly of the Old Testament, nevertheless the profound compenetration of the two Testaments as the one Scripture of the Christian faith has already become evident. The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism. … This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep’, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.”
DCE § 13 “Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine, his very self, his body and blood as the new manna (cf. Jn 6:31-33). The ancient world had dimly perceived that man’s real food—what truly nourishes him as man—is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us—as love. The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood.”
Rabbi Yeshua’s Love for Us
§ 1374 The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend. In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.
Absence of Love
By contrast, erotic love is false when it places our good or happiness above that of the other person, that is, when it uses the other person for one’s own happiness.
The popular Star Wars “empire” is based on Joseph Campbell’s idea of pantheism. In it, “God” is not a person at all, but rather a “zoom of energy” that flows through the universe, called “the Force.” In pantheism there is no room for love. The Force and the universe are the same thing, so there is no “other” to prefer over ourselves. The Force has no consciousness so it cannot prefer our good over its own.
In deism we have the same absence of love for the opposite reason. In Deism, “God” makes the world, “winds the clock,” and then withdraws to let the events of the universe occur as they will without ever intervening. If a Deist “God” existed but was not presently engaged with the world, he would not prefer our good over his own.