Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5.1-2)
The saintly (and sainted) sixth-century pontiff, Gregory the Great, wrote:
The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.
That’s a sermon all by itself. Love is much more than an emotion. It is the thing that prods us to extend ourselves to others, to make thoughtful sacrifices without a second thought. It cannot be passive, nor can it be held in reserve. Wherever love goes, love flows.
As Paul suggests to the Ephesians, love is the key to becoming more like our Maker, which is one of Lent’s most hopeful intentions. Thus, love becomes the litmus test for holiness in our lives. If the things we cherish lead to loving attitudes and behaviors, they are godly. If our thoughts and opinions move us to put love into action, then they are just.
Lest we get mired into the gooey shallows of sentimentality and romance, we need to disabuse ourselves of Hallmark notions about love. Both Paul and Gregory set high standards for love. Paul defines it by its epitome: the love of Christ, which reached its height in Jesus’s final breath. Gregory says love “works great things.” This is not the kind of love that settles for roses and chocolates. It’s more than kindness and generosity. This is gutsy love—sweaty love, the sort of love that cares more about what it can accomplish than the price of its demands.
The fragrance Paul describes isn’t the smell of flowers and potpourri. It’s the scent that rises from a sacrificial altar, a sweetness comingled with the stench of burning flesh and death. It is an odor that is pleasing to God, but not always pleasant to us. So real love’s purpose isn’t focused on making us happy. Its role is to spur us to self-sacrifice that creates change. It is the love of God displayed in human ways on a human scale that nonetheless reflects God’s epic patience, compassion, and forgiveness. It is decisive and courageous, all-inclusive and farsighted, willing to endure pain and turmoil in its tenacious pursuit of something greater than what presently exists. This is the passion Jesus describes in John 3.16: “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
While true love doesn’t seek happiness, it miraculously makes those who truly love truly happy. They don’t need rose-colored glasses to see God’s love at work, because they live in it. Genuinely expressed love naturally gives rise to joy and wholeness. Lived-in love activates a life of rich experience. It turns every thought and deed into an act of worship that pleases God.
Gregory certainly understood this. He devoted his life to reforming worship to stress the nature of God’s love and was hailed as “the Father of Christian Worship.” He lent his name to the matchless Gregorian chant that captures the soul of sacredness. That’s why musicians and singers look to him as their patron saint.
To live in love is serious work. But despite its toil, it inevitably fills us with song.