Don’t worry. If you attend Mass and listen carefully to the readings, you might fear that you stumbled into somebody’s wedding. But remain calm. It’s a normal Sunday Mass. Just so happens that we read I Corinthians 13 once every three years in the Lectionary.
And it’s a good thing, too. Because we need to try to understand St. Paul’s world-famous “Hymn to Love” as best we can.
Who remembers the subject matter of chapter twelve of First Corinthians? The unity of the Church can be compared to the unity of…
Right! The parts of the human body.
To summarize the Apostle’s point in chapter twelve: We each individually have different roles to play in fulfilling our particular mission as Christians. But the differences among our roles should be compared to the difference between an eye and an ear, or a hand and a foot, or between the large intestine and the small intestine, or between knees and elbows and jawbone, or between the forefinger and the pinky finger…
In other words: Being a great Knights-of-Columbus fish-fry line-cook is not in-and-of-itself the point; nor is being an extraordinary prayer warrior, or the fastest Sunday-collection counter east of the Colorado River, or the one who makes the best coffee, or the one who gives the poor and downtrodden a ride to church, or pals around with the priest, or presses the altar linens with the most-exquisite starched creases, or chooses the best hymns, or always cleans up the crumbs after everyone has eaten their cookies.
I mean, all these things are great. They’re beautiful. But they are not beautiful in-and-of-themselves.
There is nothing beautiful about a well-conceived Religious-Ed lesson plan–in and of itself. To become something beautiful, it needs students; it needs the truth of the faith which it conveys. It needs the whole. All the beautiful parts need the whole. Or they are not beautiful at all.
So the short summary of I Corinthians chapter twelve usually goes: We need each other. True enough. But let’s consider the fact that what St. Paul wrote in chapter 13 explains what he meant by chapter 12.
Let me show you a still more excellent way.
Frying fish is excellent. Dutifully and promptly attending committee meetings is excellent. Reading a spiritual book that helps me deepen my Catholic faith is excellent. Making music in church is excellent. Committing myself to be a consistent pro-life voter: excellent. All excellent. Praise Jesus.
But St. Paul exhorts us to pile excellence on top of excellence. St. Paul wants us, above all, to receive the love of Jesus Christ. We receive it. Then, in whatever we do, we give it. The love of Jesus Christ, and only the love of Jesus Christ, makes us one. The love of Jesus Christ, and only the love of Jesus Christ, makes us the Church.
But, Father! The name of Jesus does not even appear in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians!
Okay…But, let us please consider: Patient, gentle, humble, forgiving, selfless. Willing to suffer. Happy only in the truth. All-conquering. Unveiled and fully clear. Altogether blessed.
Who else could St. Paul be talking about? Who else loves like this?
Now, can we doubt that Jesus Christ could rustle up some mean fried fish? Or that He could give a far-superior homily? Or sing better than Darius Rucker on a good day?
No doubt. Of course He could. But none of these are what makes Jesus Jesus. What makes Him Who He is—what makes Him the ultimate whole, of which we are merely parts—His distinctive act, which unifies heaven and earth: it is not cooking or singing or teaching or flower-arranging or e-mailing or vacuuming. It’s not even miracle-working, healing, preaching, water-walking, bread and fish multiplying, or turning water into wine. It’s not even raising the dead, or rising from the dead Himself. No. Above all, Jesus loves. God loves. All His other marvelous works serve as means to an end. The end is love.
No surprise. Because the beginning was love. He created heaven and earth—all things, visible and invisible. He brought the hills into being, and the rocks, the rivers, and the trees. He makes the sun shine and the clouds pour down rain or wintry mix. He knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs. Because He loves. Because that’s the one thing He can’t help Himself doing. He’s as free as free can be when it comes to everything else. Did He have to create Niagara Falls? Not really. That was optional. Did He have to create Johann Sebastian Bach? Optional. Carrie Underwood? Optional.
But not loving has never been an option for Almighty God. Will God’s love always endure? As Shakespeare put it:
Ask my dog. If he say aye, it will. If he say no, it will. If he shake his tail and say nothing, it will.
Because God loves, we love. Because He loves us, we love Him. Because He loves us, we love each other. Because He loves, we make up one holy Body together.