I received an email with “What is love?” in the subject line. Honestly, I don’t usually read this type of email, but, for whatever reason, I read this one. It told the story of a teacher who asked her second graders, “What does love mean?” One response from a little girl caught my attention: This is what love meant to her: “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather did it for her, even when his hand got arthritis too. That’s what love is to me.”
This simple response illustrates authentic love—the sacrificial nature of marriage that is no less than a “surrendering of one’s life” for another. It is this kind of ordinary, everyday love that Jesus calls us to. The losing of one’s life doesn’t necessarily mean literally going to the cross, though it might. It means any decision to chip off a bit of one’s own life in order to give a bit of life to another.
Authentic love is the heart of discipleship. When Jesus teaches about love, he is teaching agape—a selfless love, a sacrificial love. It is this love that impels him to go to Jerusalem, the spiritual center of the world, and endure suffering for the sake of announcing God’s reign of peace. He goes to Jerusalem to teach and heal, to carry out his mission of revealing the God of mercy, no matter what the consequences.
Peter, the leader of the disciples, doesn’t understand that Jesus has to suffer. Peter, the foundation rock of faith, becomes a stone to stumble over because of the way he still thinks. He thinks, as Jesus said in today’s gospel reading—not like God but like a human being. Well, of course—Peter is a human being and is trying to avoid suffering, not only for Jesus but also for himself. I get that. I don’t want to suffer either, nor do I want anyone else to suffer. But I have come to know that to live fully and to love authentically means to embrace suffering, to deal with it squarely, not to run away from it. Our unwillingness to enter fully into experiences of suffering and rejection destines us to feel only the fear, and to feel it alone.
I was with my Mom as she was dying; cancer had ravaged her body. It was so painful to accompany her in her suffering; I didn’t want to see her suffering or experience that pain I was feeling. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be anywhere else but with her.
Like Job in the Old Testament, we may never be able to comprehend the necessity of suffering. But suffering comes with the human condition, and we find consolation in knowing that in the midst of our suffering the hand of God is with us—we have a God who suffers with us.
In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus summarizes what it means to be his disciple—a woman or man who follows him in the way of agape, the way of self-less and sacrificial love. Jesus teaches us that we disciples must take up our cross as he will in Jerusalem—that we must stay the course, stay on the way, no matter how difficult, because we know that God will make a way when there is no way.
A friend of mine once said, “Terry, you are either on the way or in the way. Disciples must forget themselves, as Jesus does during his ministry of teaching and healing. As I often remind myself, it can’t be all about me filling my own needs and remaking the world as I would have it. The way of discipleship is about service to others, especially to people who are the poorest and most marginalized.
Jesus’ teaching on self-denial does not negate self-love and self-value. Fulfilling one’s abilities and affirming a basic love for one’s self are preconditions for loving others.
We who have been loved into life by our merciful and faithful God are to be wounded healers, willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, sharing with the world the mercy that God has poured upon our lives. We are called to be disciples of Christ every day and everywhere we find ourselves, sharing agape—a self-less and sacrificial love, chipping off a bit of our own lives in order to give a bit of life to others.
That is what love is—that is what it means to be a disciple and to live a full and purpose-filled life.
Theresa Rickard, OP
Sr. Theresa Rickard is a Dominican Sister of Blauvelt, New York and the President and Executive Director of RENEW International, an organization dedicated to fostering spiritual renewal in the Catholic tradition by empowering individuals and communities to encounter God in everyday life, deepen and share faith, and connect faith with action.
Sr. Terry is national speaker on evangelization, small communities, preaching, and vocations. She has presented at numerous national and regional conferences, most recently the Dominican Jubilee Colloquium on Preaching, Mid-Atlantic Congress, Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, and the National Conference of Catechetical Leaders.
Sr. Terry authored RENEW International’s recent publication, Live Lent! Year A, a collection of weekly small group faith-sharing sessions and personal daily meditations. She has also written Advent and Lent devotionals for The Living Gospel series published by Ave Maria Press, and is a contributing author to Preaching in the Sunday Assembly and We Preach Christ Crucified published by Liturgical Press. Sr. Terry is a regular contributor to RENEW International’s blog in the category “God in the Stuff of Life.”
Sr. Terry is ex officio president of the RENEW International Board of Trustees, and is a member of the boards of Holy Cross Family Ministries and St. Dominic’s Home.
Before joining the RENEW staff she ministered in two parishes in the South Bronx, was the Director of Vocation and Formation ministry for her Dominican congregation, and was a member of the Archdiocese of New York Parish Mission Team.
She holds a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri; a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City; and Master of Arts in Religion and Religious Education from Fordham University, New York.