In this seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, Father Alexander Schmemann focuses on the exclamation “Let us love one another!” that precedes the symbol of faith. This was originally the kiss of peace that was an action of the whole assembly. From being a call to an action, it has become a call to a condition. At first glance, this may seem insignificant, for everyone knows that love is the highest Christian commandment. However, Father Schmemann argues that we need to consider the liturgical meaning of “Christian love.”
In fact, we have become so accustomed to this expression, we have heard preaching about love and the summons to it so many times that it is difficult for us to be struck by the eternal newness of these words. And yet Christ himself pointed out this newness: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another” (Jn 13:34) (134-135)
The world knew about love before Christ and the Old Testament clearly teaches love for God and for one’s neighbour. The newness of Christian love consists in extending it even to one’s enemies.
These words contain nothing less than an unheard-of demand for love toward someone whom we precisely do not love. That is why they do not cease to disturb us, to frighten us and, above all, to judge us, as long as we have not become thoroughly deaf to the gospel. Precisely because this commandment is unheard of and new, we for the most part substitute our own cunning human interpretations of it. Already for centuries, and apparently with a pure conscience, not only individual Christians but also whole churches have affirmed that in reality Christian love must be directed toward one’s own – that to love essentially and self-evidently means to love neighbours and family, one’s own people, one’s own country – all those people and things that we would usually love anyway, without Christ and the gospel. (135)
We have forgotten the other, no less strange and frightening words that the gospel contains about this merely “natural love”: “He who loves father or mother … son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37), and “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers … he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). If coming to Christ signifies the fulfilment of his commandment, then, obviously, Christian love is not only a simple increase, “crowning” and religious sanction of natural love, but is radically distinguished from it and even contraposed to it. It is really a new love, of which our fallen nature and fallen world are incapable and which is therefore impossible in it. (135-136)
How, then, are we to love? This cannot simply be the fruit of the will, education, practise and askesis – these may result in good will and tolerance, but not in the love that is merciful even to the demons, as St Isaac the Syrian puts it.
There can be only one answer to this question. Yes, this commandment would actually be impossible and, consequently, monstrous if Christianity consisted only in the commandment to love. But Christianity is not only the commandment but also the revelation of the gift of love. And love was commanded only because, before the command, it was revealed and given to us. (136)
It is only in Christ that we are able to love.
Only God loves with that love of which the gospels speak. And only in the divine incarnation, in the unification of God and man, i.e., in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of man, is the love of God himself – or, better yet, God himself who is love – manifested and granted to human beings. In this is the staggering newness of Christian love – that in the New Testament man is called to love with the divine love, which has become the divine-human love, the love of Christ. The newness of Christianity lies not in the commandment to love, but in the fact that it has become possible to fulfil the commandment. In union with Christ we receive his love and can love with it and grow in it. (136)
To live in Christ means to live in the Church and the love of Christ is the origin, content and goal of the Church. It is through her love that she manifests Christ.
In the fallen world, the mission of the Church, as salvation, is to manifest the world as regenerated by Christ. The essence of the fallen world is that division, the separation of each from all, reigns in it. This is not overcome by the “natural” love of certain people for certain others, and it triumphs and is fulfilled in the ultimate “separation” – death. The essence of the Church lies in the manifestation and presence in the world of love as life and life as love. Fulfilling herself in love, she witnesses to the world. (137)
This means that the assembling of the Church is the sacrament of love. We go to church for the new love of Christ, so that it may be poured into our hearts, so that we may constitute the Body of Christ and manifest it to the world. In this context an individualized piety that sees others as strangers is a contradiction in terms.
The kiss of peace was not simply a symbol or reminder of love,
the visible sign and rite in which and through which the effusion of divine love into the hearts of the faithful, the vesting of each and all together in the love of Christ is invisibly but really accomplished. In our current, utterly individualistic and egocentric approach to the Church this rite is inevitably perceived as a hollow “form.” I really don’t know the man who is standing across from me in church; I can neither love him nor not love him, for he is a “stranger” to me and thus no one. And we are so afraid of this hollow form, so utterly “sincere” in our individualism and egocentrism that we forget the chief thing. We forget that in the call to “greet one another with a holy kiss” we are talking not of our personal, natural, human love, through which we cannot in fact love someone who is a “stranger,” who has not yet become “something” or “somebody” for us, but of the love of Christ, the eternal wonder of which consists precisely in that fact that it transforms the stranger (and each stranger, in his depths, is an enemy into a brother, irrespective of whether he has or does not have relevance for me and for my life; that it is the very purpose of the Church to overcome the horrible alienation that was introduced into the world by the devil and proved to be its undoing. And we forget that we come to church for this love, which is always granted to us in the gathering of the brethren. (139)