Sunday, January 31, 2016


   Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

In my 15+ years as a priest,
I figure I’ve done about 100 weddings—maybe more.
And of those 100 weddings,
I’m going to guess that at least 75 of them
have included today’s second reading.
It can begin to become a bit of a cliché.

But I had a wedding once
where St. Paul’s lofty hymn to love
really managed to stand out.
The bride was from the local parish,
but the groom was from Sweden.
And although he’d been in the States for awhile,
we wanted to include something in the ceremony
to celebrate his culture and heritage.
It was decided that one of the readings
would be done in his native tongue.
So when the time came for the second reading,
the groom’s sister made her way to the pulpit,
opened her Swedish Bible,
and began to read.
What came out of her mouth rather startled me!
Have you ever heard Swedish spoken before?
Now—I mean no offense—but Swedish
isn’t quite what I’d consider a “sweet-sounding” language;
to my unaccustomed ears, anyway,
it came off about as harsh and frosty as the Nordic winter.
It sounded more to me like this pretty young woman
was declaring World War III,
rather than singing love’s lofty praises.

Clearly, something got lost in the translation!
And that’s the case in general
when we read or hear this particular passage of Scripture.

Greek is the original language of the New Testament,
and ancient Greek had four different words for love—
each one with a different twist.
There was the word storge,
which referred to the love of natural attachments—
the way a parent loves a child or a dog loves its master.
There was the word philos,
which referred to emotional love,
meaning a strong liking or affection,
such as that between true friends.
Then there was eros,
which referred to passionate love—
particularly of the romantic or sexual kind.
And finally there was agape,
which is unconditional love—
love which cares not if the other is unresponsive,
or unkind, or unworthy, or even unlovable.
Agape is the sort of love that’s only delight is in giving,
and that’s only desire is the good of its beloved.
This is the highest form of love.
It’s also what we could accurately call divine love,
since it’s the love God has for us
and, therefore, the love we’re called to have
both for God and for one another.

Yup—you guessed it:
it’s agape that St. Paul is talking about
when he writes to the Corinthians.
We tend to hear these very poetic verses
and get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
At many a wedding, in fact, the reader gets all teared up
while trying to make his or her way through this passage.
But what Paul is describing here isn’t a feeling at all,
as our modern notions of love would misleadingly have us assume.
In just a few lines of text,
St. Paul uses 15 different verbs to tell us
what love does or does not do.
He’s quite clear: love is about action.
The love he’s encouraging is all about doing something—
more specifically, about doing what God does.
And what does God do for those whom he loves?
He lets himself be nailed to the Cross.

You see, that seemingly rough and disturbing
Swedish rendering I heard of this reading
was not all that far off the mark!
The sort of love St. Paul tells us is most excellent
may not be harsh, but it is demanding:
it’s all about dying.
Truly unconditional love is most willing
to lay down it’s very life for another.
No—not everyone will be asked
to take a bullet for his or her neighbor,
as much as we rightly admire people who show love in this way…
…but there are countless times
scattered throughout each and every day
when I’m given the opportunity to die to myself—
to put the needs, the desires, the good of another person
ahead of my own.

With the help of God’s grace,
am I ready and willing to love—to die—like that?

What’s set before us in everybody’s favorite wedding reading
is not the love of Christian marriage in particular,
but the love of Christian living in general:
to love with our whole person;
to love by putting the other first;
to love not only in word, but in deed;
to love and never count the cost;
to love as God loves.
*That's "love" in Swedish.

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