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Jesus Christ Is a Model of Perfect Love

General Audience — August 31, 1988

The filial union of Jesus with the Father is expressed in the perfect love which he also made the principal commandment of the Gospel: "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" (Mt 22:37-38). As we know, to this commandment Jesus attached a second, "like the first," that of love of one's neighbor (cf. Mt 22:39). He proposed himself as a model of this love: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34). He taught and gave his followers a love patterned on his own model.

The qualities of charity listed by St. Paul can truly be applied to this love: "Charity is patient...kind...it is not jealous or boastful or arrogant...it does not insist on its own way...it does not rejoice at wrong...it rejoices in the truth...it bears all things...endures all things" (1 Cor 13:4-7). When the Apostle in his letter presented such an image of evangelical charity to the Corinthians, his mind and heart were certainly filled with the thought of Christ's love. Therefore his hymn to charity may be regarded as a commentary on the commandment of love after the model of Christ who is Love (as St. Catherine of Siena was to say many centuries later), "as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34).

In other texts St. Paul emphasizes that the summit of this love is the sacrifice of the cross: "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.... Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children" (Eph 5:1-2). It is instructive, constructive, and consoling for us to consider these qualities of Christ's love.

Christ's love for us was humble and characterized by service. "For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). On the eve of the passion, before instituting the Eucharist, Jesus washed the apostles' feet and said to them, "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:15). On another occasion he admonished them, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all" (Mk 11:43-44).

In the light of this model of humble availability which extends as far as the final "service" of the cross, Jesus can invite the disciples: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart" (Mt 11:29). The love taught by Christ is expressed in mutual service which includes self-sacrifice for others; its final proof consists in offering one's own life "for the brethren" (1 Jn 3:16). This is what St. Paul highlights when he writes that "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25).

Another quality extolled in the Pauline hymn to charity is that true love "does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13:5). We know that Jesus has left us the most perfect model of such disinterested love. St. Paul says it clearly in another passage: "Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself..." (Rom 15:2-3). In Jesus' love the Gospel radicalism of the eight Beatitudes proclaimed by him is realized and reaches its summit. Christ's heroism will always be the model for the heroic virtues of the saints.

We know that John the evangelist, when he presents Jesus to us at the beginning of the passion, writes of him that "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1). That "to the end" seems to prove here the definitive and indomitable character of Christ's love. Jesus himself said in the discourse recounted by his beloved disciple, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13).

The same evangelist writes in his letter: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 Jn 3:16). Christ's love, which was definitively manifested in the sacrifice of the cross—rather, "in laying down his life for the brethren"—is the definitive model for all genuine human love. If in many followers of Jesus crucified it takes the form of heroic sacrifice, as we sometimes see in the story of Christian holiness, this measure of the imitation of the master is explained by the power of the Spirit of Christ, obtained by him and sent from the Father also for the disciples (cf. Jn 15:26).

Christ's sacrifice has become the price and the indemnity for man's liberation: liberation from the "slavery of sin" (cf. Rom 6:6, 17), and the passage to the "liberty of the children of God" (cf. Rom 8:21). With this sacrifice, derived from his love for us, Jesus Christ completed his salvific mission. The announcement of the whole New Testament has its most concise expression in that passage of Marks' Gospel: "The Son of Man...came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45).

This word "ransom" has encouraged the formation of the concept and expression "redemption." This central truth of the new covenant is at the same time the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophetic announcement regarding the servant of the Lord: "He was wounded for our sins...with his stripes we are healed" (Is 53:5); "He bore the sins of many" (Is 53:12). We can say that the redemption was the goal of the whole old covenant.

Therefore, "having loved to the end" (cf. Jn 13:1) those whom the Father "had given" him (cf. Jn 17:6), Christ offered his life on the cross as "a sacrifice for sin" (according to the words of Isaiah). The awareness of this task, of this supreme mission, was ever present in the thought and will of Jesus. His words about the "good shepherd" who "offers his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11) tell us this; so does his mysterious though clear desire: "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I constrained until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12:50); and that supreme statement over the chalice of wine during the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin" (Mt 26:28).

From the beginning, the apostolic preaching inculcated the truth that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3). Paul said firmly to the Corinthians: "So we preach and so you have believed" (1 Cor 15:11). He preached to the elders at Ephesus: "The Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood" (Acts 2:28). Paul's preaching fully agrees with what Peter says: "Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet 3:18). Paul repeats the same idea, namely, that in Christ "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph 1:7).

To systematize and continue this teaching, the Apostle resolutely states: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23). "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25). The Apostle is aware of the contradiction revealed in Christ's cross. Why, then, is this cross the supreme power and wisdom of God? There is only one answer—love is manifested in the cross: "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8); "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" (Eph 5:2). Paul's words re-echo those of Christ himself: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13), for the sins of the world.

The truth about the redemptive sacrifice of Christ who is Love forms part of the doctrine contained in the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ is portrayed as "a high priest of the good things that have come," who "entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking...his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb 9:11-12). He did not offer that merely ritual sacrifice of animals' blood which used to be offered in the old covenant in the sanctuary "made with hands." He offered himself, transforming his own violent death into a means of communion with God. In this way, through "what he suffered" (Heb 5:8), Christ became "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb 5:9). This single sacrifice has the power to "purify our conscience from dead works" (cf. Heb 9:14). Only this offering "makes perfect once for all those who are sanctified" (cf. Heb 10:14).

In this sacrifice, in which Christ "through the eternal Spirit offered himself...to God" (Heb 9:14), he found the definitive expression of his love: the love with which "he loved to the end" (Jn 13:1), the love which required him to become obedient "unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8).