Monday, November 19, 2018

Knowing we are unconditionally loved gives us true liberation

People have often come up to me asking why I end my homilies and sermons with the phrase “God love you”.  For a start, it isn’t something that I came up with by myself.  I first encountered this when I came across the recorded teachings and preachings of the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.  An erudite and brilliant priest/philosopher/writer/theologian, he had a unique mix of preacher, aplomb, flamboyance and panache which was unmistakable and riveting.  I thought that he was someone I could set as my model in my priesthood when I was a seminarian, and I adopted this phrase of his which I thought was elegant and charming, with a certain old-school élan about it.

I never abandoned it, and I am glad I didn’t, and for good reason.  Although I’d admit that there was some vanity attached to it, its deep meaning and purpose grew on me, and it developed through the years of my priesthood.  

I have, since my diaconate till now, preached thousands of times and have told my listeners “God love you”, and I truly believe this.  As well, I truly believe that when a person has a deep understanding and experience that their being loved by God isn’t predicated on how good, how holy or how pure they are, and that they cannot make God love them any more than they are already loved, (which also means that they also cannot make God love them any lessif they sin), it becomes the game changer to end all game changers.

It’s easy to believe that God loves us when things are going well, when we are at the top of our game, and when friends surround us with their love, attention and approval. It is, as they say, a “no-brainer”. But when things start going south, when we meet with life’s challenges, when we are not top-dog but “bottom dweller”, and when afflictions and suffering make their untimely appearance in our lives, how do we believe that despite these dark circumstances, that God can be a loving God?  It seems to be natural for us to believe that God’s graces and love have also taken a hiatus.

This is where we Christians have such an advantage over those who have not had access to Jesus’ groundbreaking Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes.  His audience that were listening to him preaching that day were not just his disciples, but a motley crowd – a crowd of people from all walks of life, and in different states of life as well.  There were people of different social class, people in different kinds of relationships, people differing in their morality, people with different concerns, and with different things that pleased and troubled their hearts.  A whole mix of people forming a varied landscape before Jesus.  Not unlike the motley crowd that forms the congregation which a priest faces on a given Sunday at Mass.

Seated before me each Sunday are the devout and pious Catholics, those who are ‘forced’ to come to Mass despite not really wanting to, there are the babes in arms, and many who are in different states of moral rectitude as well.  In my years of preaching and celebrating Masses, I won’t be surprised that unbeknownst to me, there could have been present thieves, molesters, swindlers, cheats, and maybe even a rapist or a murderer.  Added to this, there is also the levels of belief in the crowd, with some deeply believing in God, and some with a catechetical knowledge of a preschooler, despite being octogenarian grandparents.

All these do not change on iota the fact that God loves each one individually and unconditionally, as if he or she was God’s only child.  On that day when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it as clear as day that those who were poor, those who were suffering, those who were meek, those who were spoken ill of, those who weep and had sadness, and those who were trampled on my society are makarioior blessed.  They were loved, and in a way that is supernatural.  They were not disadvantaged even if they thought they were.

As human beings, our lives gets automatically brighter when we are told we are loved, and when we experience being loved.  The day may be dreary and the horizon ahead bleak, but when we are assured that we are loved, or shown that we are loved, the loads that we have on our shoulders get lifted, and we become less negative.  If this is true when we are loved by a human person, what more when we are assured that we are divinely loved?  

I know that there could be a danger in being so effusive in telling people that they are unconditionally loved – and it is this – that those of us who are not living morally upright lives, those who are abusing others, that those who are hurting others with their sinful ways will take this love for granted and not respond with a desire to return this love with zeal and effort.  What if I was too lavish and generous in dishing out God’s unconditional love?  Would I be erring?

I take my cue from my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself.  On Calvary, what happened was that divine love was effusively poured out over the entire world regardless of whether those who received this love and mercy deserved it or not.  In fact, it was precisely because no one deserved it that makes this such a saving act of universal proportions.  Jesus didn’t wait until every single person changed and repented before he died.  Grace came first, and it freed us and gave us the ultimate liberation that we need. God took the greatest chance on Calvary, and we stand as the undeserved beneficiaries.  

If God was utterly lavish on Calvary, who am I to think that I should be parsimonious? And this is why I will continue to end my preachings, no longer with an element of vanity, but with deep sincerity, with the phrase “God love you”.  And may this love truly set you free.

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