What is love?

Posted December 7, 2017 10:33 pm by Fr. Nick Meisl

What is love?
John 15:9-17 (Sixth Sunday of Easter, year b, Mother’s Day)


Would you be able to explain to an alien what love is? How would you describe the concept of love to an extraterrestrial, a creature who has never encountered human culture? I recently discussed this question with students from our elementary school. Maybe you think that it is a strange question to ask, but it is one we Catholics should be able to answer. We believe in a God who is love. Jesus commanded us all to love one another as He has loved us. Love is the core of our faith and yet, though we use the word often, I suspect that many of us would struggle to explain the concept. If they were to ever meet an alien, here is how some students would explain what love is:

Love is a kind of feeling. When you’re with others it brings you together. 

When you are loved you feel happy. 

Love can be a sacrifice. 

Love is when you enjoying being with someone. 

When you love, you dedicate yourself to another person. 

Love is passionate.

I was impressed by the answers the students gave. I suspect our responses would be similar. Like the students, our answers would tend to focus on the emotional aspect of love. Like them, however, we would recognize that true love is more than a feeling. Love is a difficult concept to grasp. Fortunately for us, God did not simply command us to love. He taught us by example what love truly is.


God reveals to us that love has to do with actions rather than emotions. Love is not a feeling! Having good feelings about a person can certainly help us to love them. We can – and are indeed called to – love others whether or not we feel happy to be around them or not.  One student expressed it this way:

I don’t really like my brother but if he needed help I would help him and if something happened to him I would be sad.

Love is not a feeling, it is an action. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “to love is to will the good of another”. In other words, we love someone when we do things that are for their good. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for love is hesed. In the Bible, God’s love for His people is demonstrated by His good, saving acts. He choose them to be a people. He led them from slavery into the promised land. He gave the law. He sent the prophets. He was always faithful to His covenant. God teaches us that love is not a feeling. Love is choosing to take actions that are for the good of another person.


Further, God has revealed that love has to do with actions that are sacrificial. The life of Jesus is the ultimate lesson of love. Jesus demonstrated that true love requires us to sacrifice ourselves for others, to put their needs in front of our own. Jesus sacrificed Himself for us in many different ways. He was a humble servant who cured the sick, spent time with outcasts and washed the feet of His followers. His death on the Cross for our salvation is the ultimate expression of sacrificial love. No one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends. As Mother Teresa said, “Love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.”


In my discussion with the students, I asked them a follow-up question: “who is someone in your life that shows you true love?” Unsurprisingly, the most common answer was “my mom”. That is my answer as well! One student described the sacrificial love of his mother in the following way,

I know my mom loves me because even when I am annoying, she still gives me good food.

For most of us, our mothers have been indispensable teachers in the school of love, teaching us through the witness of their lives. A mother will repeatedly get up during the night to care for her crying baby. She puts the needs of her child before her own need for sleep. In so many ways mothers lay down their lives for their children – even when they are being annoying!


A particular example of maternal, sacrificial love is found in the life of St. Gianna Beretta Molla. Gianna was born in 1922 in Magenta Italy. Growing up, she loved music, fashion, tennis and skiing. As a young woman, she lived her faith generously. She served in Catholic Action, an organization for youth, and visited the elderly as a member of St. Vincent de Paul Society. Later, she studied medicine, eventually becoming a pediatrician. Soon after, she married Pietro and they had three children. When Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child, tragedy struck.  Doctors diagnosed a serious fibroma in her uterus that required surgery. The surgeon recommended that she undergo an abortion in order to save her own life. She refused. A few days before the child was due she said “if you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate. Choose the child. I insist on it. Save the baby.” Immediately after the birth of her child her health deteriorated and she died a few days later at the age of 39. After her death, her family and friends explained that her decision to save the life of her child was the natural culmination of how she had lived her entire life. Love guided all her actions and, as she once wrote, “One cannot love without suffering or suffer without love”.


Today on Mother’s Day, let us thank our mothers and show appreciation to them in a special way. Let us recognize that perhaps the best way we can honor them is by imitating the sacrificial love they have shown us. In this way, we can all better follow Jesus’ commandment to love others by laying down our lives for them.

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