The Corinthian Church founded by St. Paul was gifted in an extraordinary way with charismatic gifts. The Corinthian Christians spoke in tongues, prophesied, worked miracles, stood heroically in face of persecution. They justly rejoiced in these gifts of the Holy Spirit. But also they were confused, quarrelsome, divided; and their behaviour could at times be openly, even brazenly immoral. So St. Paul, unable to pay them the immediate visit he would have wanted, wrote them a long letter. His aim was to praise and confirm what was good; to correct or rebuke what was bad; to encourage, and guide, and unite.
So we have 1 Corinthians. And it unfolds on its meandering course, until we reach Chapter 13. Here we seem to see St. Paul stop, take a deep breath, and then pour out his famous Hymn to Charity. Clearly this is purple prose, elevated language, heightened rhetoric. We can imagine St. Paul thinking to himself: “Now, I’m going to hit them with my lines on love. I think they’ll like it.” And without doubt the Corinthians did like it, because everyone always does. People who know little or nothing of Christianity hear these words at weddings and funerals. They may not understand much of what is said, but instinctively they recognise that this writer is speaking the truth, and in burning words. The ideal he holds up is beautiful, desirable, noble, inspiring. So we readily assent to what he says. We want it, at least in theory: for ourselves, and for others.
Yet, as is so typical with St. Paul, the passage fairly bristles with difficulties. We encounter here several unusual words, of uncertain meaning. Paul makes odd grammatical constructions. He jumps from one subject to another without warning. Sometimes he speaks literally, sometimes clearly not. So even the most learned exegetes sometimes struggle to work out exactly what he means. And for any interpreter, the biggest question of all is: what exactly does St. Paul mean here by love?
On Christmas Day in 2005, at the beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI published a very remarkable Encyclical Letter all about Love: Deus Caritas Est. In it Benedict notes the important distinction between different sorts of love; especially between Eros, the natural love of desire, and Agape, the love of which St. Paul speaks. But (wonderfully) Pope Benedict refuses to set the one against the other. Yes of course merely natural love can be quite selfish, or superficial. Erotic love can blind us, even degrade us. It can be manipulative, or patronising; it can seek to dominate or even humiliate. Sometimes Eros can incite criminal acts. Unlike Agape, Eros also can disappear, or die. But, says Pope Benedict, even Eros comes from God. It draws us out of ourselves, and lifts us above ourselves. It is not incompatible with Agape, but it will always need to be purified, elevated, transformed.
The one who will do this is our Lord Jesus Christ. He takes what is merely human, joins himself to it, and raises it up to his own measure. So Jesus takes Eros, and other natural kinds of human love, and turns them into Agape. This is the love that Jesus taught, and exemplified, and made possible. Every moment in the life of Jesus was a manifestation of love in action: love both human and divine. Then through Jesus, through his Heart, wounded and opened for us on the Cross, God poured out his Holy Spirit, whose name is Love: Infinite, Eternal, Omnipotent, Personal. The love of which St. Paul speaks, then; the love proclaimed and brought by Jesus, is something utterly new. It is also utterly gratuitous. It’s sheer gift. So St. Paul situates his Hymn to Love in a discussion of the charisms, free gifts of God, of which this is outstandingly the greatest.
No, more than that. As St. Paul insists, Love alone matters. It’s the only law of the Gospel. Love is the height of Christian aspiration, and of Christian perfection. Without love, no other virtue or gift counts for anything at all. Love is what makes us fit for the companionship of God, because as St. John says, God is love (I Jn 4:8). So love our vocation, and our goal, and our ever present duty. St. John of the Cross famously remarked: “At the evening of life, you will be examined in love” (Sayings of Light and Love, n. 57). St. Augustine loved to repeat: “Dilige, et quod vis fac - Love, and then do whatever you will.”
Love is available for anyone, even the little ones of this world, who seem to be nobody, and nothing. With Love, they can truly be the great ones in God’s eyes. We know that Love is always possible, because the Holy Spirit gives it to us as our possession. Yet, as we re-read St. Paul’s words, we quail. How could I possibly live up to all that?
A monk will naturally read himself into the first paragraph. “If I make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but have not love, I am nothing. If I pray seven times a day, every single day, for decades on end, but have not love, I am a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I dutifully stay in my enclosure, and work selflessly in service of my community, and receive praise for all I do, but have no love, it all profits me nothing.”
Or try substituting the word “I” for the word “love”. “I’m always patient and kind. I’m never jealous. I’m never boastful or conceited. I’m never rude or selfish. I don’t take offense, and am not resentful. I take no pleasure in other people’s sins, but I delight in the truth. I’m always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.”
No: I need to go to confession, yet again. The content of my confession, however I express it, or whatever details it contains, must be: I have failed in love.
St. Paul’s words are not supposed to make us comfortable or complacent. But they are definitely meant to encourage and inspire us. So as the liturgy offers them to us again today, we ask the Holy Spirit once more to cast his love abroad in our hearts. We ask for the grace to be open to that, and to put away from ourselves anything at all that hinders or obstructs it.
And we come to the Holy Eucharist, which is sometimes defined as a feast of love. Here, through sacramental signs, we have a direct connection to the love of Jesus Christ, especially that love he manifested when he hung on the Cross for our salvation. We come to Him there now: and we invite Him to come to us. May the love of Jesus Christ then, through his outpoured Holy Spirit, touch our lives afresh today. May it rekindle what love we already have, and purify it, and transform it, until our love too is brought to its perfection in the endless joy of heaven.