Patrick Frierson ’98M.A., ‘01 Ph.D.
It doesn’t sound like a good basis for friendship—“You are my friend if you do what I command”—but today’s Gospel reading ends with Jesus claiming that his commands are a gift, offered not because we must love each other but “so that you may love each other.”
Rather than obligations we need to obey “or else,” his commands are gifts of grace, opening possibilities for deeper and fuller love. And this helps us see the whole passage in a new way. Jesus assumes that we take his commands seriously. He is not distinguishing disobedience from obedience, but the obedience of a slave from the obedience of a friend.
I’ve always been drawn to this image of Jesus as friend. I remember childhood “races” with Jesus, imagining him alongside me as I ran as fast as I could. The classic hymn’s reference to God as “Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend” always resonated with me. And on this feast of St. Catherine, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve longed for an intimacy of mystical union with Jesus. But in my busy life, my longing is constantly interrupted with responsibilities as teacher, father, spouse, and writer, and with countless distractions of ordinary life. In the absence of the mystical fellowship Catherine so beautifully describes, I pine for a clear sense of Jesus as friend.
It’s into that longing that today’s Gospel offers a refreshing reminder of what friendship really involves. Even for Catherine, being Jesus’s friend was not primarily about intense feelings of spiritual unity, but about doing what he commands. And what he commands, above all, is love.
As I receive the love by which Jesus, through his death and resurrection, offers me friendship, I am empowered to go forth and love others as his friend. Pope Francis, echoing Jesus here, reminds us of our call to “love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care.” So in this new race so generously set before me, let me go forth into my busy life not as a guilty servant, but as a friend, running alongside Jesus in his mission to bring God’s love to the world.