February 3, 2019 – Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time – 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
The following homily was originally delivered at St. Pius X Parish (Indianapolis) in 2016:
Some people might be surprised to discover that I, like many of you, am an expert on love. I mean, I love so many things; I must be an expert.
Allow me to impress you with my lengthy love list.
As you know from a past homily, I love Billy Joel’s music. I love Will Ferrell movies. I love sandwiches from Penn Station, but cookies from Subway. I love Diet Coke. I love the fact that I can now order breakfast any time I want from McDonald’s. I love smoked sausage. I love fishing early in the morning, when the water is smooth as glass. I love laying in the hammock with a good book. I love football.
Oh, and I love my wife…and my kids…and my grandkids.
My point in sharing this random list of the things I love is to illustrate how the word love has saturated our everyday vocabulary. Our understanding of the word has become convoluted.
Love can mean to enjoy something or to have a passion for it. Love can mean to have an attraction or to be drawn to something. It can be an action or a feeling. It can be a noun or a verb.
This ambiguity allows me to say, “I love my wife and I love smoked sausage” in the same sentence, which seems ludicrous…as I’m sure Carol would agree.
So when we hear today’s second reading, it may be difficult to understand the love Paul is referring to in his letter to the Corinthians.
He defines love by telling us what love is – Love is patient, love is kind.
He defines love by telling us what love is not – Love is not jealous or rude or ill-tempered.
He emphasizes the power of love – So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Paul’s words are beautiful. It is no wonder that couples so often include this scripture passage in their marriage ceremony.
However, because the English language has allowed the word love to morph into so many other realities, we might still struggle to understand the love Paul is describing to us. Seeking understanding, we ask ourselves, “What is our experience of the love he describes?”
Paul’s letter was written in Greek. The Greek-speaking people also experienced many different types of love. However, they were smart about it. They used several unique words that allowed them to distinguish between the different types of love.
Eros was the word used to describe a passionate love. Phileo was used when the Greeks were referring to a fondness or affinity for something or someone – perhaps even Diet Coke or smoked sausage. Storge was a word used to describe a natural affection for those who were closest to them.
The word Paul chose to use in the original text was agape. Agape is the Greek word used to describe a self-giving love, one that gives without demanding or expecting repayment. It is love so great that it can be given to even the unlovable or unworthy. It is love that continues to love even when it is rejected. It is the type of love God has for us; He is totally committed to our well being without regard for our worthiness.
This selfless giving would explain why the word agape is sometimes translated as charity, and might help us understand how we are called to love.
Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart…and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God and love others.
I can handle the “love God” part, but “love others” is tricky. If that means I have to love everyone I meet, I’m afraid I would fail. As hard as I try, there are days that I don’t even like everyone I meet.
However, if we keep the word charity in mind, it seems possible. I’m not sure I could love everyone I meet, but I’m sure I could be charitable to them. It seems easier to be something than to do something.
One of the most powerful illustrations of the concept of love that I have ever heard did not come from St. Paul or from a personal understanding of the Greek language.
It came from a simple story about a young girl in the Philippines.
Ed and Eileen Johnstone are parishioners here at St. Pius. Eileen is a co-worker of mine and shared the following story with me. It was reported by her son, Luke, and her daughter-in-law, Katie:
Luke and Katie, married for 1-1/2 years, made a commitment last August to devote time to mission work. They are working in the Philippines, and will be for the next two years. Luke does purchasing for several local orphanages and Katie works with the poorest children living in the slums of the city.
They had been preparing for several weeks for the big Christmas Mass for the children. Nearly 1500 children, the children they serve, would be there, with the Archbishop of Manila celebrating the Mass.
After the Mass, the Archbishop gave any child that was interested the opportunity to come forward, say their name and age, and share what they wanted to be when they grew up.
As you can imagine, with 1500 kids many were interested, so the line was quite long.
The children in the line stated their name and age, and then shared that they wanted to be doctors, nurses, teachers, and so on.
Since it was the first year Katie and Luke were at this Mass, they kept wondering when the Archbishop would say, “OK, that’s all for today.” He never did; he just kept listening.
Finally there was only one little girl left. This girl was from an orphanage for children with special needs. She had Down’s Syndrome.
She came forward and said her name and her age.
Then the Archbishop asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She said, “I want to be LOVE.”
That is the love St. Paul wrote about. That is the love we are called to offer one another.
Love is not an action or a feeling. It is not a noun or a verb. Love is a state of being.
What a simple yet powerful message: Don’t just love, be love.