I think most of us would agree that the word ‘love’ is overused, so much that its power and meaning get lost. We use the same word to describe our enjoyment of ice cream, as we do for a parent’s feelings about his/her child. We use the same word in reference to sexual intimacy, as we do to describe what motivated Mother Theresa to care for the dying on the streets of Calcutta. We use the same word to describe our favorite sport, as we do what impelled Jesus to suffer on the cross.
Today’s second reading gives us St. Paul’s famous Hymn to Love. If you attend a Christian wedding, there’s a 50% chance this will be read. A friend once said this is the Stairway to Heaven of scripture readings, meaning it’s overused and tired. I don’t entirely agree. It’s only overused in the sense that we might not bother trying to understand what St. Paul really meant.
You likely know that St. Paul wrote in Greek. In that language there are four distinct words for ‘love’. There is eros, which can be described as erotic love. There is filia, which can be understood as the deep loyalties one has for family and close friends. There is storge, which is exemplified in the love a parent has for his/her child. Then there’s another Greek word, agape. It’s a love that says, “I will love you, even if you don’t love me back, even if stand nothing to gain from it”.
In thinking about love in this way, isn’t that how God—Who is love (1 Jn 4:8)—loves us, even when we don’t love in return? Even when, in our desire for love, we look everywhere else, seeking anything to satisfy our need to feel loved—too often, willing to cheapen ourselves, just to feel that security, a false-love.
Our culture bombards us with messages that tell us that everything is about us, a vision that looks no farther than the ends of our noses, seeking to satisfy our immediate needs or desires. And it all leads to a shallow existence and a prevailing thirst for real love, transcendent love. But agape-love, is not only unconditional, but it’s also, focused on the other; it is self-giving.
The saints show us, in their different ways, how to move toward love. As St. Therese says it:
”Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love”.
Today St. Paul calls us to love like that. As a litmus test, we can use the words from this second reading, and insert our name in place of the word ‘love’: “_____ is patient, ____ is kind. ____ is not jealous, ____ is not pompous, ____ is not inflated, ____ is not rude, ____ does not seek his/her own interests, ____ is not quick-tempered, ____ does not brood over injury, ____ does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. ____ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ____’s (love) never fails”.
This love to which he calls us has the ability to draw us out of ourselves, and if we choose it and work at it, and it will therefore open us up to truly be able to receive love. If we can first love like this, then all our other lesser-loves will find true meaning.
Agape-love is the love that’s revealed when we look at Jesus’ arms outstretched on the cross. It’s the expression of love that awaits us in the Eucharist, reminding us that God ‘wills our good’ so much, that he gave everything for us. May our participation in His love, and meditating upon it, help us to know we’re loved, and to reflect that love.