What is it to love? That is, what is it to love such that it is the mark of our lives; such that it is the defining characteristic of who we are; such that it is the beginning and end of all we say and do? What is it to love like that – with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind (to put it in Jesus’ words)?

One way of answering this question could be to think of the loves of our lives, and to generalise from them. Typically, the loves of our lives are around us: a spouse or partner; a child or parent; lifetime friends; God. But you might note that each of these loves are of a differing kind. The saying that ‘love is love’ is not really true. One kind of love is sacrificial; another is passionate. Love is affectionate, or it is a decision. Love can be unbidden, but it can also be obligation.

The love that is commanded as a law to live by – the love Jesus considered the first and greatest – is a love of its own kind. We can note that it is a love directed towards someone else and entirely attentive to that other, be it God or our neighbour. It is a love that is on the look-out for strangers, and widows, and orphans, and the poor; all of them seen without seeing ourselves, without noticing what it does in us. We have a specific word for this kind of love: it is the love of friendship.

Friendship is our oddest kind of love, yet it is the most human of loves, because it doesn’t come naturally to us. By this I mean, friendship is a ‘choosing’ kind of love. We fall head over heels in love with someone, without even trying. We sacrifice ourselves in love of our own flesh and blood, without blinking an eyelid. We instinctively offer protective love to the vulnerable and weak. Each of these kinds of love is also evident in the higher animals. But only humans choose their friends, and are chosen as a friend.

Friendship is also the riskiest of loves. We have to chance ourselves on being accepted as someone’s friend. Forming a friendship requires taking the risk of our lives. You cannot force or demand or expect friendship, as you might expect to be loved by your parents. It is something freely given and freely received. And it can just as easily be lost. Friendship is inherently vulnerable and open to loss; yet it can endure through thick and thin like no other love.

Friendship is the greatest of loves. So said Jesus himself. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As such, friendship is deeply demanding. Because we can always walk away from a friendship, not to do so – to persevere in offering friendship – is demanding in ways unlike any other love. Jesus did not walk away; he walked to the cross. I chose you; you are my friends.

Christian love is the ‘take-the-risk-of-choosing’ love; it is friendship in God, who chose to befriend us, and it is friendship with others, whom we are called to choose in turn. Might we not be identified by others in the way our first Christian brothers and sisters were recognised: See how they love one another.