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A response of love, because he first loved us

Beginning on the Feast of Christ the King and going through the season of Advent, the parishes of the archdiocese will be re-proclaiming the kerygma — the Good News of the Gospel — in what is intended to be an archdiocesan-wide retreat. Over the next four weeks, the Denver Catholic will publish guest reflections penned by priests of the archdiocese on the four main parts of the kerygma: Created (read here), Captured (read here), Rescued (read here) and Response.* We encourage you to revisit these pieces throughout the Advent season and pray with the reflection questions provided, so that we may all come to know the saving power of the Gospel in an even deeper way and therefore live out the Lord’s mission for his pilgrim Church on earth! Also, be sure to stay tuned to denvercatholic.org each week to watch a special homily video series on the kerygma.

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By Father Nick Larkin
Pastor of Assumption Parish in Welby

In my early years of seminary, I stumbled on a line from Hans Urs Von Balthasar that has since become deeply part of me: “You seek proof that you are loved but you yourself are the proof.” 

Our life is a gift. That is to say, none of us chose to exist. We were created. And God’s Holy Word unveils that we were created good. One doesn’t have to look too far for evidence of the virus of original sin that we have all inherited from our father Adam. And yet, our very existence is because the Most Holy Trinity, an eternal exchange of love, made us, and destined us to share in that eternal exchange.  

What stands out as the heart of Christianity is that though we were born under the captivity of the Evil One, Jesus Christ has rescued us through his death and resurrection and proved that we are loved, that it is good that we exist.  St. Augustine once said that if the bulk of the New Testament had been lost but 1 John 4:8 remained, then the essence of what the New and Eternal Covenant is would be communicated. That, of course, is that ever-radiant truth: God is love.  Only a few verses later, we come across what I believe to be the most important lesson in the Christian life and how we are called to respond to the proclamation of the Gospel. The Beloved Disciple writes: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us first” (1 Jn 4:10). 

When I was 17 years old, I learned the total gratuity of God’s love for me. I was arrested for stealing from the local grocery store where I worked. It was a great humiliation. Because I lived in a small town, everyone knew everyone else’s business. I will never forget being handcuffed and led through the supermarket to the police car while people I had grown up with stared at me. Out of the goodness of his heart, my uncle offered me a job at his Dairy Queen. One day, my uncle had had enough of my poor attitude. He pulled me outside. Frankly, I thought I was about to get the living daylights beaten out of me. My uncle started to raise his voice. And he said: “Do you know what your problem is?” I rolled my eyes. And to my complete surprise he said: “You don’t realize how much God loves you.” With that, I broke down into tears. This was the first time I received the truth that the Lord loved me, and I knew that his love was not something I had earned. Around that same time, there was an older gentleman at church who gave me a copy of St. Faustina’s diary. I began to ferociously read it. Jesus began to teach me to have great confidence in his merciful love and to never despair. 

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I’ve since come more and more to accept that the Father’s love is something to be received, not earned. C.S Lewis wrote: “God does not love us because we are good. We are good because He loves us.” That love of God that my uncle proclaimed to me in the midst of hitting rock bottom saved me. It changed the trajectory of my life. Before I had always had an exterior piety, but from that moment on, this new truth of God’s love began to define me from within. I slowly began to learn that God loved me first, and that everything is a response to his love. 

As the years have gone on from that encounter with God’s Triune love, I’ve realized that my response to that love requires heroic and often tedious perseverance. Just as we have to pray each day, “give us this day our daily bread,” so we have to pray daily, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It has been said God will not always give us cake to eat, but the bread he provides will give us the strength to do his holy will. His divine will often requires sacrifice, but that is because sacrifice is the way of love.

In the Catholic spiritual tradition, there is a helpful distinction between affective love and effective love. Affective love comes with consolation as we feel the love that Our Lord has for us. But our response to this requires more than us enjoying the consolation of God’s love. It must take flesh and become an effective love. It must transform us from within. This purification is sanctifying and reaches its fullest perfection in love of God and neighbor. But it all flows from God who loved us first, a love we come to know in Jesus crucified. Love makes a demand, requires a response, of us who abide in Him: “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn 4:19-21). 

In the end, the words of Hans Urs Von Balthasar ring even truer: “You seek proof that you are loved but you yourself are the proof.” That proof is revealed not only through our being created, but after having been captured and rescued, in God’s daily outpouring of grace that gives us the strength to persevere in responding to it. Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever! 

After reading this article, pray and meditate with the following questions. Listen for what the Holy Spirit might be trying to tell you.

1. How is the Lord calling you to surrender more fully and respond to his love for you?

2. Do you live as though you are earning or receiving God’s love for you? How is he calling you to receive his love rather than earn it?

3. What is the Lord asking of you right now, knowing that you are an integral part of his Church and her mission on earth?

*These terms are borrowed from Father John Riccardo’s presentation of the Gospel in his retreats and writing. The Archdiocese has been blessed to be working with Father Riccardo and his apostolate Acts XXIX for the last year. The Denver Catholic recommends his book, Rescued: The Unexpected and Extraordinary News of the Gospel, for going deeper on these concepts.

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