Toward the end of his Gospel, St. John recalls an encounter between the Risen Christ and Saint Peter by the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Biblical commentators signal a curious wordplay in the conversation. Whereas the evangelist inserts the Greek word “agape” (or unconditional love) in Jesus’s first two questions, “Do you love me?”, he uses the Greek word “philia” (or love of friendship) in Peter’s responses, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:15-16). Only in the third interlocution does John use the Greek word philia for both Jesus’s question and Peter’s reply. The late Benedict XVI opined that Peter’s inability to commit to the all-encompassing and self-sacrificial love exemplified by Jesus stems from the “drama of Peter’s own weakness,” since he betrayed his Master just days prior (cf. Benedict XVI, General Audience, 24 May 2006). As much as that shocks the reader, it also provides a familiar lens into the human condition. Fickle is the human heart.
In many ways, the ambient culture obsesses over a limited version of love, and leaves no room for the kinds of distinctions present in John’s Gospel. God designed the human heart for the capacity to love eternally and unconditionally (agape) – evidenced in the tears of every creature who mourns the loss of another. Yet, society so often reduces love to physical affection alone (what the Greeks called “eros”). Lawn-signs now proudly tout a vapid tautology — “love is love” — without ever uncovering its riches. Biblical wisdom provides a more ancient worldview, however: “Deep waters cannot quench love, nor rivers sweep it away” (Song of Songs 8:7). This should bring consolation to every human heart. Man does not receive his identity from his physical desires – let alone from his sins. Rather, man understands his deepest self as one created by and through unconditional love, which transcends the desires of the flesh. During this month of June, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Church turns our eyes to the one who loved us to the point of shedding his blood. Rest assured, even when his followers fail to love him back adequately — as Peter did, and indeed as each of us do every day – nothing can obstruct the power of the Sacred Heart, which burns to save each of us, and even calls us his friends.
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