Fourth Sunday of the Year
The Greatest of These is Love
Today’s second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of the New Testament, the great Pauline reflection on love. It is found in that part of the First Letter to the Corinthians where St. Paul speaks about the Christian community. Paul begins by presenting some of the concrete difficulties experienced by the community in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He tells them that they are celebrating the Eucharist incorrectly. At the time that Paul wrote to this community, about the year 57, the Eucharist was still celebrated as part of a full meal. Christians gathered together on Sundays to recall the Lord's mandate: "Do this in memory of me." They shared a meal just as Jesus shared a meal with his disciples at the Last Supper. During these weekly gatherings the needs of the community would be taken care of. Food would be shared in common, with enough brought so that the poorer members of the community would have plenty.
This should have worked, and did work for a decade or so. But by the time that Paul wrote the Corinthians, things were starting to break down. Factions and cliques were forming even as the Corinthians gathered to celebrate the Lord's Supper. The rich were bringing good food and drink for themselves and their friends. The poor were left to fend for themselves. Paul corrects the Corinthians by going right to the heart of what the Eucharist is all about. At the Lord's Supper everyone shared the one bread of Christ, making the participants one body, one community of love and salvation. Dividing into factions with the rich scorning the poor, was in direct conflict with Jesus's own life. It showed a contempt for others, and a contempt for the communal nature of the Church. Paul reprimanded the Corinthians because their failure to serve all the members of the community ignored the very nature of the Church and in a real and frightful way despised the actions of the One who founded it.
Paul then goes on in chapter 12 to discuss the Christian community. He begins by presenting the various gifts of the members of the community. He points out that all gifts flow from the Holy Spirit. To one the Spirit gives the gift of wisdom. To another he gives the gift of understanding. Some can work miracles. Others can prophecy. Some can speak in various languages. Others can interpret languages. And so forth. All the members of the Church are gifted with different manifestations of the Spirit, one gift is not more important than another, one member of the community is not more important than another. Together all with their gifts compose the unified Body of Christ.
In the seventies and eighties various charismatic groups sprang up throughout the Church emphasizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These groups were and are important. We need to have a deeper understanding of the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. However, some individuals and groups got off base relatively quickly. They missed the whole point. They made it seem that those who had visible manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit were better and stronger Christians than others. They spoke about baptism of the Holy Spirit in terms that denigrated the one true sacrament of baptism. They missed the whole point of First Corinthians.
That’s where today’s reading comes in. The same things happened among the Christians of Corinth and throughout the early Church. Paul is emphatic in stating that the gifts of the Holy spirit are useless, meaningless, if they are not immersed with love. Without love the great wonders of the Spirit that still attract people such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophesying, are a resounding gong or clashing cymbal. Consider this, a cymbal may have a place in an orchestra, but no one goes to a cymbal concert. There is something far more important in which a cymbal must participate: being part of the orchestra. The ability to prophecy, to comprehend mysteries, even the gift of a faith so great that one could move mountains as Jesus told the disciples they could do, all these gifts are wonderful, but meaningless, meaningless without love.
Sadly, we all have experiences of people who claimed to have great faith but who lacked love. We have all met people who were so stern, so harsh in their dealings with others, so rigid in what they thought was proper Christianity, that they drove their children out of their families and, if they were priests, their people out of their parishes. Without love, they had nothing. Without love, we, as individuals and as Church, are nothing.
What is this love that is fundamental to Christianity. That’s where the beautiful declarations of Corinthians 13 comes in. Rather than define love, Paul personifies it.
Perhaps, it would be easier to understand these statements if we added the words man or woman after each sentiment. Love is a patient man, a patient woman. Love is a kind man, a kind woman. Love is a person who is not boastful, or rude, or self serving, or quick tempered, or vengeful. Love is a truthful person, a man or woman of integrity. A loving man, a loving woman puts up with everything for the sake of being loving. No matter what happens in the world, his or her love remains strong. Love never fails.
All those gifts of chapter 12, speaking in tongues, prophesying, working miracles, and so forth are all physical, concrete gifts of the Spirit. They will no longer exist once we leave the physical world and enter the spiritual world. But love, love is forever. The gifts of the Spirit were given to us because we were immature in our faith. They drew us to faith. But now that we have received the faith, we have to put away the things of children and embrace the love of God, for God is Love. When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think like a child, reason like a child. But when I became a man I had to put aside childish things.
Our focus should not be on the manifestations of the Spirit. Our focus must be on living the Love of God. If we do this, then we will be able to do that which no physical person can do, we will be able to see God face to face. Then we will know Him as He really is.
Love is central to being an authentic Christian. You and I were created to be unique reflections of God’s presence. God is love. We were created to actualize, to make real, a unique reflection of His love. Our actualization of His love, our reflection of His love is eternal because He is eternal. Heaven, then, is the union of the Creator and those creatures who have given an authenticity to their being, by immersing themselves in that which is at the essence of His Being, his love.
The great hymn of love of Chapter 13 is far more than a reflection to be read during marriage celebrations. It is a statement of that which is essential for authentic Christianity.
When we die, we will go before the Lord with nothing except our love. If we have loved in an authentic Christian way, if we have loved the way that Christ has loved, then we will stand before the Creator. If we have loved as He calls us to love, we will be absorbed by Him yet still be individuals. We will see Him face to face.
And He will have our faces, and we will have His.