Psalm 145 says that “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” God’s steadfast love for humanity is the through note that brings harmony to the psalms. Even more, deep engagement with the psalms transforms the reader and brings harmony to the soul. Brian E. Daley, S.J., writes in The Harp of Prophecy that the church father Athanasius recognized “in this mimetic, modeling role of the psalms an anticipation of the healing effect of the Incarnation: just as the Word, in becoming one of us, not only taught us how to live by his words, but ‘did what he taught,’ providing us with a living image of ‘perfect virtue’ in his own life” (Page 20).
It was because Jesus became for us a “living image of perfect virtue” that he could give to his disciples a new commandment to love. Jesus offered himself as the model of love: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It is intended to be the quintessential act of discipleship by which outsiders would recognize Jesus’ followers: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is a simple command: Love one another.
It has to be love. Simple as it is, everyone can love, from the baby to the elderly person. It is not an achievement; it is not a talent; it is not a skill; but everyone can offer it. Every act of love is complete and perfect, an example of God with us, God in us and God among us. Love has its own logic. The more it is offered and shared, the greater it becomes. Love heals the wounds of sin by offering a balm of mercy and forgiveness.
But it is not unfair to ask, if love is the mark of Jesus’ disciples, why is there often so little love on display among the disciples of Jesus? Why is there not only a lack of charity but hurtful words and angry denunciations? It is God’s love that will recreate us and sustain us, allowing us to love our brothers and sisters, so why are we so resistant to God’s transforming love?
It is imperative that we enter into deep relationship with the love that transforms us. Father Daley writes that early Christian interpreters of the psalms were “continually amazed” by “the apparently universal ability of these poems to transform the hearts and minds of those who regularly prayed them” and to create “a harmony and order in our inner selves” (Page 20-21).
It is not just the psalms, of course, for transformation can come from meditating on other parts of Scripture, other forms of devotion, other acts of mercy, other ways of living out the Gospel. Yet the emotive aspects of the psalms, what ancient Christians noted as their “sweetness,” could move people so that both the learned and unlearned, the young and the old could be transformed by the songs of God’s love. Whenever love is encountered, and especially when the encounter becomes habitual, it gently transforms us into lovers.
Paul and his co-workers brought the message of love and transformation throughout Asia Minor and “made many disciples.” People responded to the Gospel, but Paul knew that the making of “many disciples” is the start of the process of discipleship, not the end of it. This is why Acts tells us that Paul and the other disciples returned to the cities they had visited as missionaries and “strengthened the souls of the disciples” with the encouragement of preaching, prayer and fasting. Our spiritual transformation is shaped by daily modeling ourselves on the “living image of perfect virtue.”
Jesus’ love is not just a commandment for this life; it offers us a foretaste of the sweetness of the life to come. For the “living image of perfect virtue,” our model for life, was raised up to life eternal, offering for us a path to follow him home. There will be, John tells us, no more death, suffering, mourning, crying or pain, for “the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” Love alone awaits us, the sweetest psalm.