From the letter of Father Daniel XVI.34 of Friday 20 August 2021 (°)
The fourth quality of our humanity is: we are passionately loved by God. God does not love us “in spite of” our sin, but we would almost say “for the sake” of our sin, namely because our miserable condition attracts God’s mercy even more. In this sense, the Liturgy of Good Friday speaks of “happy guilt” (“Felix culpa“). About the “Servant of God,” the prefiguration of Jesus Christ, the prophet Isaiah writes: “Truly, it was our sicknesses that He took upon Himself, and our sorrows that He bore” (Isaiah 53:4). Our guilt and shame are a particular challenge to God’s goodness and mercy.
The whole Bible reveals a God, Creator and Father, who is infinite love. This love is the answer to all questions: why he created the world and us in his image, why Jesus became man and redeemed us… St. Paul begins his most important letter and the only one in which he systematically expounds his Gospel with the exclamation: “God loves you” (Romans 1:7). It is his “kerygma,” the brief summary of his entire message, like the trumpet blast of a herald. He wants us to be warmed again by the fire of God’s love and to rediscover that we are God’s loved ones. This “kerygma” reminds us of the exclamation “armistice” at the end of World War II. People walked out into the street, hugged each other and started dancing. We did not know what had actually happened or what the conditions were, but the most important thing we had understood: the misery of the war is over. And after the “kerygma” follows the full explanation: the catechesis, through which the core message is deepened and strengthened. St. John adds that it is God who first loved us.
The Scriptures try to express God’s love through various pictures. Let’s say in advance that these images are human representations that actually conceal much more than they reveal, but they indicate a direction. “I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love.” (Hosea 11:4). “I have carried you since you were born; I have taken care of you from your birth…. And I will carry you and I will save you” (Isaiah 46:3-4). It is fatherly love that points to the origin, but also to goodness and loving care, that provides protection and security. The original biblical image of “father” (Hebrew: av) has nothing to do with the modern conception of a predominant paternalism, but everything to do with intimate connection and the heartfelt desire to give oneself. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the son of her womb? Even if she could forget, I will not forget you! Behold in my palms I have engraved you” (Isaiah 49: 15-16). “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). (Ezekiel 16: 62-63). This motherly love is tender closeness, forgiveness, pity. It comes from within, from the place where the child originated. Therefore, the same Hebrew word “rechem” (mv. rachamim”) means both mother’s womb and mercy, pity. This suggests that we must be born again “from the womb of God’s mercy.” Jesus says to Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (Greek: anoothen = ‘again’ and ‘from the high’ (John 3:7). The merciful Father from the parable of the prodigal son, painted by Rembrandt, also seems to express both paternal and maternal love.
Finally, there is conjugal love as an image of the highest intimacy and unity. “And as the bridegroom rejoices with his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). Ezekiel, 16 tells us in a heartbreaking way how God cares for the Jewish people, for us, as his bride. The baby kicks in his blood and God comes along and says, “Keep alive, stay alive” (v. 6). The child grows up and becomes a beautiful girl, and God says, “You became mine” (v. 8). In a long text, her infidelity is described. She goes from lover to lover, from one misery to another, but God remains faithful to her: “I will keep my covenant with you, and you will acknowledge that I am God. And when you think back to what happened, you will not dare to say a word of shame, because I have forgiven you all that you have done wrong…” (Ezekiel 16: 62-63). “I take you as my bride forever, as my bride in justice and righteousness, in goodness and mercy, as my bride in unbreakable fidelity” (Hosea 2:21-22). This image is actually present throughout the Bible, from Adam’s hymn to Eve (Genesis 2:23) to the fervent sigh at the end of the book of Revelation (22:17): “The Spirit and the Bride say: Come.“ Right in the middle of the Bible we find the “Song of Songs”. For a profane reader, this may be no more than a collection of sensual declarations of love from a lovesick, as you can read on beer coasters in a student cafe. However, the great rabbi Aquiba (late 1st century) stated that the Song of Songs is the holiest of all scriptures because it deals with the intimate union of God with his people. For the Jews, this song is one of the five feast scrolls (megillot). They sing it at the greatest feast, Easter: “I am my love’s, and my love is mine” (Song of Songs 5:3; 2, 16; 7, 11). “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm” (8: 6). In this sense, Jesus, too, has continually used parables about wedding feasts to invite us to enter into the intimacy of the Triune God.
Our life purpose is nothing less than this ultimate happiness. Throughout the centuries, the greatest mystics have expressed their experiences of God through the Song of Songs. When John of the Cross († 1591) is literally languishing in a filthy prison, a former toilet, he writes his sublime commentary on the Song of Songs. The death of earthly love and attachments in him, allows divine love to be born. The sensual images of the Song of Songs are a means to represent something of the highest divine experience of love. For this unity of love with God, we were created.
This is the “Good News”. However, it is not enough that we understand all this with our minds, this message must become our life itself. This requires an openness from ourselves. This requires a free decision to recognize that we are wounded and dislocated, from which we cannot save ourselves with our own strength. A conscious decision is required to turn to God’s mercy and Jesus’ redeeming love and to want to be born again. With our poverty and smallness, we should go to Jesus with confidence and let Him be Savior. This is the miracle of our healing and salvation, which is ultimately a work of God’s grace. “Being passionately loved by God” should not only penetrate our minds but our hearts. He who knows himself to be truly loved can handle a lot, yes everything.
(°) Father Daniël is a Norbertine attached to the abbey of Postel-Mol in the north of Belgium. Since 2011 he has lived largely in the abbey of Mar Yakub in Syria, where he is responsible for the formation of new priests.