Love is the key to understanding both Good Friday and Easter and their meaning for our lives. It is also the key to understanding what St. Maximus the Confessor has to teach us about our fasting during Lent and Holy Week. So we must ask “what is love?”—at least, as far as Maximus understands it.
The answer is that love is the principle of ordered union within the cosmos. It is, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “the synthetic power” in Maximus’s thinking.1 Everything that exists is good, in one way or another, but not all goods are equal. Though love may at times manifest itself in embodied humans as an emotional state, love itself is the characteristic of our free will that helps us recognize the good around us and properly order those goods. This, in turn, allows us to act in a way which brings about harmonious unity in the cosmos, or at least in our little corner of it.
Love doesn’t just bring about external harmony, however. Love unifies all of the virtues, which includes a deeper integration of the body, since those virtues united by love include ones arising from the proper use of bodily faculties—virtuous speech and virtuous eating, for example. By uniting the various virtues, therefore, love deepens the psychosomatic (that is, soul-and-body) unity of the human person.
According to St. Maximus, therefore, acting with love unites us with God, with neighbor, and within ourselves. These three unions—with God, with neighbor, and within ourselves, are hierarchically related, and the first two unequivocally come before the latter. The material world and the body that is a part of it are good and ought to be properly used. Yet the commandment of love, which calls us to love God and neighbor, must take priority over these goods, lest a material preoccupation lead to division. This might sound complicated, but it really isn’t. To love, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, is “to will the good of another” (CCC 1766). The person who loves their body more than their neighbor is incapable of this. Think, for example of a rich man who hoards food and so causes a poor man to starve. Love is thus fundamentally unifying and ordering, bringing us into proper relationship with God and created realities.
This brings us to another crucial point for understanding Maximus’s view of asceticism—the connection between love and reason. Contrary to how we typically think of these terms, Maximus sees love as rational, and reason as loving. According to Maximus, the soul’s dignity rests in the fact that it is, by its rational and free nature, the image of God. Yet, this is not abstract, Spock-like reasoning. Rather, the soul’s rationality is actualized by love’s concern for the proper ordering of things in relation to God, which includes self-giving love for neighbor. As Maximus says: “Love alone, properly speaking, proves that the human person is in the image of the Creator, by making his self-determination submit to reason, not bending reason under it, and persuading the inclination to follow nature.”2
This is an important insight for us as we approach Good Friday and Easter. In going to die on the cross, Jesus acted out of love, putting the will of God and the good of His neighbors above the good of his own body. Our response, in turn, must be one of love. We don’t simply look at the sacrifice of Christ with detached reason, treating it as merely another proposition in our constellation of dogmas, though it is a dogma to which we must assent. Nor must we respond with passionate emotion to what he did, though such a response is certainly fitting. Instead, we should respond with a love that orders our lives in conformity to the goods of nature and grace which He revealed.
This post is Part 2 of a special 6 part series. It is drawn from the public presentation of my Master’s thesis given at Regent College in 2015. I will be putting up one post per day through Maundy Thursday. Part 1 can be found here.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, trans. Brian E. Daley, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), 339
- Maximus the Confessor, “Letter 2: On Love,” in Maximus the Confessor, trans. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 83; PG 91:396C