Greater Love Has No Man Than This: On Friendship with God

Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus speak the words “I love you.”

It is not until the Last Supper, the night before He dies, that He says something along those lines: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (Jn 15:9).

Yet throughout the Lord’s public ministry, people are convinced that Jesus loves them. Why?

Msgr. Luigi Giussani defines friendship as every relationship in which the other’s need is shared in its ultimate meaning. Is it possible for us to live, even for five minutes, without someone like this in our life? As people in the Gospels encounter Jesus, they recognize a friend. For in meeting Christ they experience their need being shared in its ultimate meaning, maybe for the very first time.

More than anything else perhaps, this is what the Blessed Virgin Mary wants to impress upon the world at the wedding feast of Cana, when the wine runs out (see Jn 2:1-11). In directing the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” Our Lady publicly identifies human need with her Son. Our deepest need, our truest thirst— the one that Jesus will identify Himself with on the verge of death as He cries from the cross, “I thirst!”—is now and forever shared in its ultimate meaning by this man. At a feast of love, the Mother of God reveals her Son to us as our friend.

Why else would the people bring to Jesus “all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics” (Mt 4:24) but for the fact that in Jesus they have found someone who shares their need in its ultimate meaning? Something similar happens the second Jesus sets foot on the shore of Gennesaret: “The people recognized him, and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people on their pallets to any place where they heard he was” (Mk 6:54–55).

When did Jesus call His first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John (see Mt 4:18–22)? It was “when he heard that John [the Baptist] had been arrested” (Mt 4:12). Did the experience of grief trigger in Jesus the craving for friends, friends who would become in turn lifelong companions?

Throughout the Gospels we encounter people whose lives are entirely caught up in waiting for Jesus. The four men whose friend is a paralytic go to the pains of removing the roof and lowering the pallet of their friend—whom they have carried up to the roof—through the opening, so convinced are they of the saving friendship of Jesus (see Mt 9:1–8; Mk 2:1–12; Lk 5:17–26). Blind Bartimaeus, in the darkness of his suffering, nonetheless sees a hope worth crying out to: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). It is the cry of a friend summoning a friend. A similar confidence appears in the ten lepers: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk 17:11–13).

For others the experience of catastrophic suffering brings a breakthrough certainty about Jesus. They rush to him as to a friend—as to one longing to share their need in its ultimate meaning. The Canaanite woman begs, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon” (Mt 15:22). Jairus, the synagogue ruler, risking his reputation as well as public scandal, falls at the feet of Jesus imploring, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live” (Mk 5:23). A father emerges from a crowd to plead, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a mute spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid” (Mk 9:17–18). And of course, Martha and Mary of Bethany, with their brother Lazarus on the verge of death, send this message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn 11:3). The evangelist John comments, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5).

How do we account for the profound conviction among these people that Jesus is someone they can rely on so radically… someone they can trust thoroughly, completely, as one only trusts a friend? Yes, they were looking for healing, liberation, relief. But even more, their circumstances moved them to look at their own selves—to take their I seriously.

We Are Made for Friendship

Pope Benedict XVI explains:

Of ourselves, we cannot come to terms with ourselves. Our I becomes acceptable to us only if it has first become acceptable to another I. We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else. . . . It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist….If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist”—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. For it is the way of love to will the other’s existence and, at the same time, to bring that existence forth again. The key to the I lies with the you; the way to the you leads through the I.1

We are made for friendship. But how do we ever perceive the existence of a love like that? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us:

At the present time we cannot know how great God’s love for us is: this is because the good things that God will give us exceed our longings and desires, and so cannot be found in our heart….

Thus the believing world, that is, the saints, will now know by experience how much God loves us.2

When people entrenched in their need—their woundedness, their longing—encountered Jesus Christ, what they experienced in His exceptional presence corresponded with the deepest yearnings of their hearts. That experience of correspondence moved them to confide themselves to the love radiating from Jesus Christ. It blessed them with the certainty that God Himself was accepting and loving them through this man. That is why they approached this man and asked Him, in friendship, to do for them what only God can do.

I was on a retreat many years ago with some young people in the Rocky Mountains. At the end of the retreat, we all had the chance to stand and share with the group some of the graces we had received. I remember one young woman coming forward and saying to us very simply, “I know that God loves me because He gives me companions.” Then she sat down.

I was bowled over. It’s true! The amazing friends I have: I didn’t “find” them; I certainly don’t deserve them; but I do have them. And there is only one feasible reason: because my friends are God’s gift to me in proof of His love for me, His friendship.

And even though the good that God wills to give us ultimately exceeds our desires, our fundamental human need for friendship begins to show itself expressly through our desires. That is the vital experience by which we sense how God loves us. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling . . . of that something which you were born desiring. . . . Always it has summoned you out of yourself.”3

This may explain why the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John are “What do you seek?” (1:38).

In this vein St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) says that the nature of love is to rise each day higher above oneself toward God by holy desires and never to rest until one has reached the supreme good.

The experience of desire keeps our heart, made as it is for infinite love, from ever compromising the ultimate satisfaction it seeks. . . . What we want is the miracle that Jesus makes happen in these words:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (Jn 15:13–15)

This inestimable gift, friendship, is the love called charity. It is the love that never stops repeating with all its heart: “I want you to exist! It is good that you exist!”

The Experience of God’s Friendship

In many respects the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart is the “feast day” of Jesus. For as the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy states, “the term ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’ denotes the entire mystery of Christ.” Or to put it another way, what “defines” Jesus Christ is His Sacred Heart. We cannot know or understand the deepest truth of this man who is God apart from His Sacred Heart and all that that human heart signifies.

By identifying His very self with His Sacred Heart, Jesus reveals to the world His truest identity: He is forever the Son of the Father who lives to make of Himself an unceasing and total gift of love. For the motivating intention of all the actions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is to glorify God the Father by making Him known, loved, and served—to bring forth our friendship with the Father. Through the mystery of the Sacred Heart, the Lord says in effect, If you would desire to know Me, then you must accept the gift of My love. For there can be no true knowledge of me apart from the love I long to impart to you.

The pierced, open side of Christ on the Cross, which makes visible the Sacred Heart of the Son of God, remains “the way in” to knowledge of Jesus Christ.

The feast of the Sacred Heart is the enshrinement, so to say, of Jesus’s most heartfelt yearning in the Gospels: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28–30). Here is the never-ending promise of One who exists to give Himself without limit in love and mercy and compassion to those most in need, most powerless, most lost or desperate or alone.

Why the Lord’s heart? Because His heart is what our hearts are made for! The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the human heart as our “hidden center,” the place to which we withdraw to be ourselves, where we really live (no. 2563). It is the locus of our decision making. It exists beyond the grasp of reason and remains deeper than all our psychic drives. The sanctuary of the heart is where we choose life or death.

But left to ourselves, we cannot even know our own heart. We need something more than ourselves in order to be in touch with our heart. Without the benefit of that “something,” our heart can become torturous.

Only God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. And so Jesus, in a supreme act of friendship, gives us His Sacred Heart so that we can know our own. The Sacred Heart of Jesus truly and completely corresponds with the longing of the human heart, satisfying its deepest need.

This notion of “heart” seems to be behind a moving insight of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar:

God’s love knows the depths. It lives in us, establishes itself within us as a center; we live from it; it fills and nourishes us; it draws us into its spell, clothing itself with us as a mantle and using our soul as its organ. . . . A loving fear grows within us, fear which again and more urgently forces us to our knees, into the dust of nothingness. . . . Thus do we live from God: he draws us mightily into his glowing core and robs us with his lordliness of every center that is not his own. . . . God claims us jealously; he wants us solely for himself and for his honor. But, laden with his love and living from his honor, he sends us back into the world.4

As Pope Benedict XVI says, “God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties, to trust in him and, by following his example, to make ourselves a gift of unbounded love.”5

Our hearts are made for Something, and they cannot be tricked into settling for anything less than that Something—Someone!— for which we are made. Jesus blesses us with the gift of His Sacred Heart in order to provide an ingenious method to save us from the temptation of turning Him into an abstraction, reducing Him to His message or to His example.

To be a friend of Jesus means to receive this inestimable gift of His Sacred Heart and all it signifies.

1 Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, trans. Sr. Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), pp. 79–80.

2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, John 17, lecture 5, no. 2250, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/SSJohn.htm.

3 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 150, 153.

4 Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo Leiva (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1979), pp. 32, 33.

5 Pope Benedict XVI, homily for Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Opening the Year For Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the Death of Saint John Mary Vianney, June 19, 2009, www.vatican.va/holy_father/ benedict_xvi/letters/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20090616_annosacerdotale_ en.html.

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