Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 3: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Hymn to love

Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; Ps 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 Cor 12:31—13:13; Lk 4:21-30

Often the Sunday Scripture selections are each so beautiful that it is difficult to choose which one to concentrate on. That is the case this Sunday, which includes the powerful call story from Jeremiah where God tells the prophet “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” 

The conviction that God had a purpose for Jeremiah before the prophet was conceived inspired Paul the Apostle when trying to understand the mystery of his own purpose in life (see Gal 1:15).

In the Gospel reading today, we hear the sequel to Luke’s account of Jesus’ inaugural preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth. The congregation’s initial favorable response to Jesus’ eloquence turns hostile when they hear him expand the horizons of his mission beyond the boundaries of Israel. Similar to the feast of Epiphany we just celebrated, the spirit of the Gospel is worldwide. God’s embrace extends to all nations.

That leaves us with Paul. One of the most well-known and beloved passages in all of Paul’s letters is his so-called hymn to charity from the First Letter to the Corinthians.

Years ago when I was taking an oral exam at the University of Louvain in Belgium, my professor, Gilles Quispel, a Dutch Protestant professor of early Christian history, startled me, when out of the blue, he asked me to recite by heart these words of Paul in Greek. When I confessed I did not know them by heart, he innocently said, “I thought all priests would know these words by heart.”

They are surely worthy of being engrained on one’s heart. How many couples over the centuries have chosen these words for their marriage ceremony? “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous. …it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. … Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 

Paul concludes with the exquisite words: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

When Pope Francis wrote his beautiful and challenging reflection on marriage and family titled “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), he spent an entire chapter on this passage, analyzing each word and phrase and applying it to the love between husband and wife. 

The love Paul describes, the pope notes, was not easily achieved romantic love, but the kind of persevering and strong love fashioned over time through lived experience.

When Paul wrote this lyrical passage to the church in Corinth he was not thinking specifically of love in marriage but of the quality of love that such characterizes any Christian community. In fact, the prompt for Paul’s eloquent reflections was a problem among the Corinthian Christians (described in 1 Cor 11:17-34). 

Paul had learned that when the Christians came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and to share a meal, some of the wealthy members brought lavish food and choice wines, while some of the poor members were embarrassed because they had nothing to bring. Paul is incensed that this sacred meal, which celebrated the Last Supper of Jesus before his death out of love, would become an occasion to divide the community rather than to celebrate its unity in faith and love.

It was this situation that drew from Paul his most profound reflections on what should characterize the relationships among Christians. He emphasized that the many gifts and talents of Christians sprung from one Spirit and were meant to serve the good of all (1 Cor 12:4-11). 

He described the church as the “body of Christ,” with each member mutually dependent and the most vulnerable members given the most care and attention (1 Cor 12:12-31, read last Sunday).

All of this led to his most eloquent passage which is the hymn to love we hear in today’s Sunday reading. It is a beautiful and inspired vision of what the church is called to be.


  • scripture