This weekend’s first reading provides important insight into the difference between what we might call “surface-love” and “heart-love.” Addressed to men, Proverbs presents this just warning: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Our culture today is fixated on the deceptive and the fleeting, molding us to prize a person’s outward charm and beauty above all, but it’s a failing prize. While it’s true that such “surface-love” can mature into a deeper “heart-love,” if love stops at outward charm and beauty, it too will be deceptive and fleeting. Only the inner values of the person can sustain a stable relationship. To get to those inner values, lovers have to learn how to entrust their hearts to one another; they have to learn how to take their walls down, let their masks fall, and entrust their real humanity, warts and all, to each other. The value of a wife who loves her husband in this way is “far beyond pearls,” Proverbs tells us. “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.”
“My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God,” as we sing in this Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm. The Church calls that thirst eros. Tragically, because we so rarely connect the dots between eros and God, “man unknowingly stretches out in search of the Infinite, but in misguided directions: in drugs, in sexuality lived in a disordered manner, in all-encompassing technologies, in success at any cost, and even in deceptive forms of religiosity,” says Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus refers to one of these deceptive forms of religiosity in this Sunday’s gospel, namely, those virgins who, while supposedly devoting their whole lives to God, “have no oil for their lamps.” Father Raniero Cantalamessa describes these unwise virgins as those who offer the counter witness of a “cold love.” He compares them to “poor lovers who write to the beloved letters copied from a handbook.” If the affections and desires of the heart connected with eros are “systematically denied or repressed” in the name of celibacy, states Fr. Cantalamessa, “the result will be double: either one goes on in a tired way, out of a sense of duty, to defend one’s image, or more or less licit compensations are sought, to the point of the very painful cases that are afflicting the Church.” Wise virgins do not repress eros. Rather, they allow their eros to become what it truly is: a pure, burning, wild, aching longing for God. In other words, their lamps are lit on fire and they are witnesses to the whole world of the eternal marriage that awaits us in heaven.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Christ reverses the world’s values when he insists that the “greatest among you must be your servant.” For Christ, who is the greatest among us, came not to be served but to serve. One of Saint John Paul II’s greatest theological contributions was his insistence that this call to love as Christ loves – through being a gift to others, through serving others – is stamped by God right in our bodies as male and female. A man’s body makes no sense by itself. Nor does a woman’s. Seen in light of each other, we see the call to be a gift to one another, a gift that is at the service of human life itself. In the second reading, Saint Paul draws from this truth when he says he loved the Thessalonians “as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you,” he continues, “we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well.” This is what a mother does when she nurses her child. This is what we are all called to do if we are to discover the meaning of life: “For man can only find himself,” observed the Second Vatican Council, “through the sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24).
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then the second greatest is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mt 22:34-40). One of the insights of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is that this call to love is revealed in our bodies. “This is the body,” says John Paul II, “a witness … to love” (TOB 14:4). It’s a witness to the love God has for us, the love we are to have for God, and the love we are to have for others. How so? It’s the body that reveals the call to become “one flesh.” The holy communion of man and woman is a “great mystery” that reveals how God loves us in the holy communion of the Eucharist (see Eph 5:31-32). God wants to marry us, become “one” with us in the flesh. “This is my body given for you…” says Jesus to his Bride in the Mass. In receiving Christ’s body in so intimate a way, we have all we need when Mass is ended to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another.” We have God’s body in our body, the source of all love. Astounding.
This week’s Gospel presents Jesus’ well-known response to those who asked him about paying taxes to Caesar. Since the Roman coin bore Caesar’s image and inscription, Jesus said, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” The deeper question, of course, is: What belongs to God? We do. For we bear his image and inscription. Where? How? Traditionally theologians have said we image God as individuals, through our rational soul. That’s true. But St. John Paul II says that “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning” (TOB 9:3). God himself is an eternal Communion of Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The call to a similar communion is inscribed by God right in our bodies as male and female. The body itself is a witness to self-giving love. God took on a body precisely to make a gift of his body for us. Let us “repay” God by making a gift of our bodies for him.