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The commandment to love

By Paul Nesta

What is the greatest commandment? Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Matthew 22 is direct and succinct, in a sort of unsurprising and underwhelming way. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 6:5). Second, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). These two commandments rightly sum up all the law and the prophets.

Yet beneath the surface of these seemingly docile words lies the reality that the Greatest Commandment presupposes the aptitude of fallen humanity to love God undividedly and unreservedly, which presents something of a problem. As Karl Barth notes:

The biblical passages do not know anything of a natural love to God which is proper to us apart from divine revelation, or of a natural capacity for love which is prior to revelation. It is only the children of God by grace who love and can love God. (Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2.373).

Thus, the Greatest Commandment presupposes the grace and love of God at work in the New Covenant, during a time when the Holy Spirit moves God’s people to follow God’s decrees and laws with an undivided heart (Ezek. 11:19, 36:27). A connection between Deuteronomy 6:5 and the New Covenant is found in Deuteronomy 30:6 and must be noted if this commandment is to make any sense:

The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.

Ultimately, it is only by a spiritual circumcision of the heart that a person can love God undividedly. This truth in no way negates the charge upon Israel to love God. Peter Craigie points out that the language of love appearing in Deuteronomy 6 is rooted in the Hebrew relationship to God: “The injunction to love was based on the precedent of God’s love, which had been shown to the Israelites principally in the Exodus, and, in a larger context, in their election and calling from the time of Abraham.”[1] In the summary of the Law, Jesus is not so much appealing to the precedent of God’s love in the Exodus as he is anticipating a new precedent and a new Exodus that will lead all humanity from the Egypt of their sin.

The promise of the New Covenant is that through the love of God in Christ, the “thou shalt” of the Law becomes a “thou wilt.” Love, writes Barth, “becomes a self-evident and necessary act on the part of the beloved” (Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2.382).

The action of Christ standing before the religious leaders and declaring the undivided love of God to be the greatest commandment is a vivid portrayal of God not only commanding what God wills but, through divine love mediated to the human soul, granting that very commandment. Here we see that the human soul’s reception of God’s love in Christ turns the requirement to love into the ability to love.

For Episcopalians especially, this has certain liturgical and mystagogical implications. Since the inception of the first American Prayer Book, the American liturgy, borrowing from the Scottish rite, has included the option of reciting the Summary of the Law. These words rightly find a place within our liturgy because they first and foremost address the baptized. The command to love God and love one’s neighbor, as we have already noted, presupposed one’s aptitude for love and thus a spiritual circumcision of the heart. Baptism, according to St. Paul, is the spiritual circumcision spoken of in the New Covenant prophecies: “In Christ you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ when you were buried with him in Baptism” (Col. 2:11-12a). The priest who stands before God’s people and declares, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith,” is speaking to those who have the love of God dwelling within them and who alone have the ability to fulfill our Lord’s command. This point is reiterated by Maximus the Confessor who writes, “[O]nly in seeking [love] among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love … the one who possesses love possesses God himself, since ‘God is love.’”[2]

The very logic of the Entrance Rite serves to display this point. In the Collect for Purity, which immediately precedes the summary of the Law, the priest prays, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee.” The collect rightly addresses the fact that only through the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, which is a continual work, can humanity love God perfectly. Here the priest prays, on behalf of Church, for that New Covenant promise of an undivided and perfect love for God. Only having prayed for such a cleansing and conversion can we hear the words: “Thou shalt love thy Lord thy God.”

Following the logic of the rite, then, we can accurately conclude that the summary of the Law is actualized within the worshipping community. To the extent that the speech of God is the action of God,[3] the priest, standing in the person of Christ and declaring the summary of the Law, is an instrument of divine action. By virtue of God’s love meeting us in the person of Christ in this way, God continues to incline our hearts towards love by means of the Holy Spirit. In the liturgy, the “thou shalt” of the commandment actually becomes the “thou wilt” of our obedience.

In his work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI points out that in the liturgy “mankind’s movement towards Christ meets Christ’s movement towards men.”[4] Christian liturgy, then, is a sort of recapitulation of the Incarnation of Christ, wherein the love of God meets humanity, engendering and awakening the human capacity for divine love. This mystagogical movement is dynamically exemplified for Anglicans in the summary of the Law, which begs the question for Prayer Book revisionists: How optional is the Summary within our liturgy? I would submit that the dual-love commandment is essential in our liturgy because, to borrow from St. John, it displays how the love of God is revealed through the person and action of Jesus Christ, reminding us it is here that the human soul discovers its own ability to love God in return (see 1 John 4:19). As in George Herbert’s second poem on Love, the greater flame of God’s immortal love attracts the lesser flame of our own to it:

Immortal Heat, O let Thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it; let those fires
Which shall consume the world first make it tame,
And kindle in our hearts such true desires.
As may consume our lusts, and make Thee way:
Then shall our hearts pant Thee, then shall our brain
All her invention on Thine altar lay,
And there in hymns send back Thy fire again.

The Rev. Paul A. Nesta is curate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Denison, TX.

[1]Peter S. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 170.

[2]Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 87.

[3]Barth CD 1.1.143-162.

[4]Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 49.



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