by Father Mike Stubbs
How many times have you heard this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35?
Since it is proclaimed at Mass every three years in the Lectionary cycle, divide your age by three, subtract three for those years when you were an infant or ill at home, and you will arrive at an approximate number.
In any case, the reading will most likely not sound new to you. Nonetheless, in it, Jesus announces that he is giving us a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Is it possible for that commandment to remain new, to retain its freshness, despite its antiquity? Christians have wondered about that for centuries.
After all, this was not the first commandment to appear concerning the obligation to love. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) reminds us that the Old Testament had already ordered: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:18). Jesus’ commandment was not new in the sense of being the first of its kind. Instead, St. Augustine points to the phrase “as I have loved you” as the key to understanding the newness of Jesus’ commandment. Jesus’ example, especially his sacrificial death on the cross, invested the commandment of love with new insight, with new depth.
Even, though, if we agree that Jesus’ example added a new dimension to an already ancient commandment, that happened 2,000 years ago. At the time, Jesus’ example might have been new, but it is no longer. Can we still call Jesus’ commandment of love, new? If so, what makes it new?
In writing about Jesus’ commandment of love, St. Augustine also refers to the renewing effect on the person who observes that commandment: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Whenever we follow Christ and live according to his teachings, including that commandment of love, we are made new. In that sense, the commandment is not new in itself, but is made new in us. Unless it is obeyed, the commandment turns into a dead letter. Christians are the ones who can keep Jesus’ commandment of love fresh and vigorous.
That is perhaps why Jesus emphasizes the commandment of love as a trademark of his disciples: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If his commandment will retain that sense of newness, it will depend upon them.
About the year 200, the theologian Tertullian wrote about what the pagans were observing about the Christians: “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another), ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they are readier to kill each other).” That means that we have inherited both Christ’s commandment of love, as well as the example of those early Christians in faithfully living according to that commandment. If it is to stay new, it is up to us.