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What is charity? Friendship with God

By Father Daniel Ciucci
Pastor at Most Precious Blood Parish in Denver

Growing up, my dad’s job at Rocky Flats made our family move around a lot. I transferred schools every year from the 2nd grade until the 8th grade. More than anything, I desired a “best friend” and simultaneously considered the pursuit of one to be a fool’s errand, a feat of impossibility. Thus, friends were easy-come, easy-go realities of social self-occupation. So when Jesus claims, “but I have called you friends,” as a middle schooler at Sacred Heart in Boulder, I remember erroneously correlating those words with the Ascension — Jesus leaving — just like every other friendship in my life.

Friendship has always been an elusive reality for me, and I’ve seen its effects in my relationship with God and my life as a priest. Thus, when the Apostles were impelled by the Spirit to go forth in boldness, to teach and baptize, I saw it as working for a distant Jesus more than a with Jesus, and even less because of a friendship with Jesus.

Meaning of charity

I say this because friendship is essential to charity, which in turn is key to our relationship with Christ. The Catechism defines charity as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822).

When this love, this friendship, is weak, we may come to believe that we have to continue the work of Jesus on our own. And our only recourse is to work harder. I self-diagnosed that there were times I was working hard in the vineyard of our Lord running off the fumes of youthful and idealistic Jesus-esque zeal and not recharging, renewing or reviving myself with a personal friendship with Jesus.

As I’ve come to realize, when the bulk of our spiritual life is based on that little preposition “for” — when we keep doing activities “for” Jesus and not often enough “with” Jesus — we may not only become stressed and fatigued, but we may also come to see Jesus as the CEO and ourselves as people in lower-middle management hoping for praise.

Transformative friendship

Therefore, a friendship with Jesus is necessary. It’s a reciprocal and transformative relationship. It requires that we give and take. A friendship requires good will on the part of both parties. And since it’s based on mutual benevolence, it entails the sharing of good things. Thus, friends share of their intellect — how they see things. This enables them to pursue truth together, a clearer vision of reality as it is and not just how my opinions want it to be. It also entails a sharing of one’s will, feeling and emotions. Making known how I am affected by the events in my life in vulnerability is essential to friendship.

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Of course, as in any friendship, there remains the question of suffering, not only as a result of disappointment, but also as a part of our walk and friendship with Christ. We all know his command to carry the cross daily. Yet muscling or white-knuckling through the carrying of our cross often contributes to our short-sightedness. The priest says something very different at every Mass: “Through him and with him and in him” — not “for” him. Carrying our cross is not about working harder, and not even about working smarter, it’s about working with Jesus, alongside him in friendship — the sharing of my life with him who is love.

St. Andrew, example of friendship

The apostle St. Andrew is an example of the type of friendship we are called to have with Christ and others. He was among the first to whom the Lord said, “Come, follow me…” The three antiphons for morning prayer for the feast of St. Andrew show us a beautiful progression of friendship.

The first one reads: “Two men followed the Lord from the beginning; one of these was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter.”

This movement starts with Andrew following Jesus. This is the slow conformity of Andrew’s will with that of Jesus. It’s the beginning of friendship. As Jesus teaches, the apostles slowly start to acquire the mind of Jesus — seeing things the same way — a necessary step towards friendship.

The next antiphon stops me dead in my tracks: “The Lord loved Andrew and cherished his friendship.”

Cherish. What a word! Letting Jesus love me, cherish me, has been among the hardest endeavors of my life. Andrew must have reached a point of mutuality with Jesus where he was no longer just accomplishing tasks well for him but doing them for the sake of love and friendship. You can’t cherish a one-way friendship. The fact that Jesus cherished Andrew’s friendship means that Andrew received and reciprocated the love and friendship of Jesus.

The third antiphon goes: “Andrew said to his brother Simon: we have found the Messiah, and he brought him to Jesus.”

Real friendship involves the sharing of goods, and among them, friendships. Andrew proclaims the fruits of his searching, bringing his brother to Jesus. How many of us see our friendships with one another as overflowing from a friendship with Jesus, the fruit of this friendship being charity?

Charity in a truer sense is not philanthropy — giving money — but rather the giving of self. It is a growth in love of God and neighbor, willing their good and sharing ourselves in a context of friendship. After all, it was said of the early Christians, “See how they loved one another?”

May we, like Andrew, allow Jesus to love us. May we give ourselves to him that he may cherish our friendship and grow our brotherhood and the Church herself to the fullness of charity.

To coincide with the archdiocesan Advent preaching series, this article is part of a series about The Eucharist as the Sacrament of Charity.

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