Love is often misconstrued in our culture. We use the same word to describe our fondness for coffee, our favorite book, our dearest friends and family members. In relationships, love is reduced to a feeling, often bound up in lust. For some, love only exists in fairy tales, because of the hurt, betrayal, and pain they have endured by people in their life who were supposed to love them. But true love, true charity, is self-emptying, sacrificial, unconditional.
Charity wills the good of the other, it is the virtue “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor [and our enemies] as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC, §1822). Though difficult, this is the love we are called to: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9). To love as the Father loves perhaps seems impossible, and indeed it would be if not for the sacraments, which infuse us with grace and enable us to orient our hearts to the greatest good. The sacrament which binds us most perfectly to the virtue of charity is the Eucharist, the third and final sacrament of initiation.
After kneeling before his disciples and washing their feet—a task reserved for the most lowly of servants—Jesus reminded his disciples, his closest friends, that he did not come to be served, but to serve. Then, during the Passover meal, Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you,” and then the cup saying, “This is my blood poured out for you.” The significance of these words is made manifest the next day. For less than 24 hours later, Jesus, God Incarnate, is crucified. His Body given up, his Blood poured out upon the wood of the Cross, out of perfect love for us.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est—where charity and love are, God is there. It is fitting that this ancient chant is traditionally sung on Holy Thursday, the day the Church celebrates our Lord’s Last Supper in which he instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. In this sacrament, God is there; and because God’s very nature is love, charity and love abound as well. When we receive the Eucharist, we are transformed further into the image of God, in whose image we were created. Strengthened and nourished by the Bread of Life, we can leave Mass in peace, glorifying and praising God by lives poured out in charity.
Besides receiving the Eucharist as often as possible, how else can we nurture this virtue?
1. Guard our thoughts and words
Through our thoughts and words we can choose to build others up or to tear them down. Gossip, in particular, is a sin against charity and is frequently condemned in Scripture. Pope Francis has reiterated the dangers of this habit numerous times. We are called to be messengers of the Good News, to deliver truth in love. We can pray simply: “Set a guard, Lord, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).
2. Practice hospitality
Often associated with being a hostess and welcoming others into a clean home, hospitality is actually at the heart of being Christian and goes much deeper than this superficial understanding. Instead, hospitality should be thought of as receiving the other. Do we sacrifice time for the people in our life? When someone needs our help, do we view it as an inconvenience or interruption to our schedule? If we see new people in our communities, do we extend ourselves and welcome them? (This is particularly challenging for my fellow introverts, but equally important!) In conversation, do we listen, or are we usually the one doing all the talking?
3. Forgive others
One of Jesus’ last prayers was to ask the Father to forgive his offenders. Every time we pray the Our Father, we pray that God might forgive us as we forgive others. This act is a gesture of perfect charity, one we are called to offer others, as Christ offers it to us. Do we forgive easily or do we hold on to bitterness, anger, and resentment? Do we judge others harshly, while ignoring or own shortcomings or forgetting our own sinfulness?
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Featured image: The Last Supper, Monreale Cathedral; PD.