You know, since I’m currently serving in this, my home parish, I’m going to pass on the opportunity to comment on today’s Gospel: I’ve already reflected long and hard on how a prophet is not accepted in his own native place! I’d like to talk instead about our second reading today. Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians about the nature of love is one that we’ve heard a million times, especially if we’ve been to any number of weddings. We may have heard this reading so often that on hearing the opening words of it, we tune out and just let the words flow past us. But I think Paul’s ruminations about the nature of love are important, so I’d like us to take a little pause in our lives to consider them.
The other day, I was finishing up at the office after having met with a nice couple who were planning to get married here next year. The night was crisp, well cold actually, but very clear, and I could see the almost-full moon bright and large in the sky. Again, this is something that we see enough that maybe we might just be tempted to walk past it and get to someplace warm. But I didn’t. It struck me that during the winter, we don’t often get to see such a beautiful sky; too often the beauty around us is masked by gray clouds. And so that beauty caused me to stop where I was – even though it was cold – and look up at the sights for a minute or so.
I realized that that beauty brought me joy, even in the dark of winter, and I remembered that joy is, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, the most infallible sign of the presence of God. And I got a little choked up, as I stood there, thinking about how God loved me enough to give me a glimpse of beauty that was really nothing compared to what lies in store for us. As Saint Paul says today, we currently see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then we shall see face-to-face. And what beauty, what joy there will be on that great day!
That beauty that we shall see one day is what theologians call the beatific vision. That is the joy that we hope for in the life to come, and nothing on earth can compare to it. But sometimes, once in a while, probably more often than we take time to realize, God gives us a little glimpse at that beauty, that joy here on earth. The Catechism teaches us about this too. It says, “Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see God ‘face to face,’ ‘as he is.’ So faith is already the beginning of eternal life. When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy.” (CCC, 163)
One of those little glimpses of the beatific vision, is love. We know that God is love, that God cannot not love, that anything that is not loving is not God. I often say that the way that I know that God loves me is by just thinking about the good people God has put in my life. My family, my friends, my parish family, my brother priests, all of these good people love me in ways that can only come from God. And experiencing the love that they have for me, and the love I have for them, I get a little glimpse of God’s love for me. And so it is no wonder that Saint Paul today takes such a good, long look at the nature of love. He tells us what love is, and also what love is not; he defines love in at least sixteen different ways.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this reading though, is that love is the most important thing of all. That makes sense if we keep in mind that God is love, doesn’t it? But we often get bogged down in looking for other things. And Paul knows this too. He says that even if we spend all our time working on developing our spiritual gifts – which is not a bad thing to do, of course – but don’t work on loving, then those spiritual gifts are meaningless. It could never happen, given our imperfect natures, but even if we could speak and understand every human and angelic language, even if we could prophesy perfectly, even if we came to know every possible thing that could be known, even if we could move mountains with our faith, if we don’t also love, then we are nothing at all. If we don’t get love, we don’t get God, we don’t get anything. All that other stuff is nice, but love is the still more excellent way.
For all of us busy twenty-first century people, I think the challenge is making time for love. We get caught up in our work, our serving, our sports, our kids’ activities, and so on and so on. But if we don’t take time to love, all that stuff is nothing. We had a hard week last week, dealing with the tragic death of one of the teacher’s aides in our school. The day that we told the teachers, I was just drained by the end of the day. But I went to my mom’s house to celebrate the second birthday of my youngest niece, and she gave me the biggest hug I’d had in a long time. Katie was God’s love for me in that moment, and I didn’t miss the significance of that at all.
Love is a lot of things – it’s so complex and yet so simple. The love that we experience here on earth is just a little glimpse of the love that is our God – but it is absolutely a glimpse of the love that is our God. Who cares what else we accomplish, what else we can do – if we can’t love, we can’t be part of God’s life, because God is love itself. That’s why Paul tells us that everything else will pass away – all our spiritual gifts, all our accomplishments on earth, all of our prestige and importance and everything else on earth will pass away one day. And on that day, it will be just fine to be without all that stuff, because the three things we are left with – faith, hope and love – will never pass away and will lead us to eternal life and a sharing in the life of God.
And the greatest of these is love.