The Astonishment of Loving
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) | Fr John Farrell gives an exhortation about the practical demands of St Paul’s challenging ‘hymn to love’
The so-called “Hymn to Love” of the First Letter to the Corinthians, our second reading, is familiar from many a wedding ceremony or funeral. It acts often as a bridge between the Christian community and those who have no faith, or have other beliefs, but are attending and participating in significant celebrations of our God-given common humanity. Extolling our human yearning for love at its purest and implicitly exhorting us to strive for this higher standard, it is right and proper that it is taken to be part of the common heritage of all humankind.
But for the Christian disciple of the risen Lord to treat it only in this way is to diminish its power and run away from its demands.
Significantly this chapter of the letter comes between Saint Paul’s teaching on the Christian community as Body of Christ in chapter 12 and, in chapter 14, the on-going necessity of the task of the constant up-building of the Christian communion. The Holy Spirit of the Risen Lord gives the Body of Christ both unity and diversity; diversity and unity. This is not an easy dynamic Similarly the mutual obligations of Christians in chapter 14 are expressed in the themes of on-going building up of the common life, mutual encouragement, and loving consolation. Seen in this context our present chapter is not a hymn of idealised love but the demands of a practical program. The Christian Community in Corinth was being torn apart by selfish party factions, arrogance and contempt, angry speech, unruly behaviour and indifference for the common good and indifference to the truth. The characteristics of love listed here by Paul are neither arbitrary nor exhaustive but suitable for the situation in Corinth.
“Love is not easily angered but patient,
Love is not rude. Love keeps no record of wrong,
Love does not delight in evil.
Love rejoices in the truth.”
They are, in a similar practical and demanding way, suitable for all Christian communities.
But these characteristics of love have particular force especially in a contemporary political and cultural and social media environment and even in our ecclesial world. Our cultural worlds are becoming more divided and aggressively hostile to each other. Parties and Factions project falsehoods onto one another. The Like-minded increasingly only talk to each other so polarisation increases. The situation in Corinth is now globalised. The “Walls of Hostility” – St Paul’s phrase in Ephesians – grow higher and stronger.
For us Christians, we must hear, through this hurtful noise and fog of untruths, the crystal clear words of the Lord spoken on the Mountain in Galilee with divine and human simplicity.
“You have heard it said love your neighbour and hate your enemies. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven for he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good alike and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sister, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Our “hymn to Love” is for the Christian a rebuke and a demanding evangelical programme to be integrated into the speech, the life, the evaluations, and expectations of the disciple. In the letter to the Ephesians Paul tells us that it is only by the blood and flesh of Christ that the walls of hostility have been broken down. A new power of Love, divine and broken on the cross, has flowed into our world and into our Christian communities. “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” (Rom.5.8). Living Eucharistic lives, dying daily to self and rising to newness of life, Christians must let that peace and love which the world cannot give flow through them into the world that needs upbuilding, encouraging, and consoling.
It is a sign of human and intellectual maturity to be able to hear and entertain ideas without promptly denying or affirming, rubbishing or idolising them. It is self-love and hate and fear that moves us to unreasonable assumptions, rash judgements, prejudicial conclusions. In contrast wisdom both human and divine is born of wonder, surprise, and openness, and love. When truths emerge out of their certainties into wonder; and abstract love is transfigured into the astonishment of loving.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of ‘Amor’ by Robert Indiana, located in the Sculpture Garden, next to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.