A reflection on 1 Corinthians 13 on the third Wednesday of Advent 2019 by Nikolaj Christensen
Faith, Hope, and Love are three of the most misunderstood words in our Western culture. They ‘abide’, as St Paul said, as a collective memory, but we’ve largely forgotten why. We use them in various simple phrases: ‘I gotta have faith’; ‘While there’s life there’s hope’; ‘All you need is love’.
We tend to associate faith with ‘blind faith’ – ‘faith versus science’, faith as belief against the evidence that things are different (or will be different) from what they seem. There’s some truth in that: we believe in an upside-down Kingdom where the people who seem to be in charge are cast down and the lowly are lifted up, to paraphrase the Magnificat. But whereas Christians don’t believe that ‘seeing is believing’ – we do believe that believing is seeing, even though ‘in a mirror, dimly’. We don’t believe that faith makes you blind.
We tend to associate hope with ‘naïve hope’ – wishful thinking. Something that’s almost certainly going to be quashed — but it might just work! So it’s understandable that we’re going to run into difficulties when the Scriptures constantly talk about our hope as a certainty.
And then love: we tend to talk about loving the things we desire and even need for ourselves, and we often make people into the objects of our desire. To be ‘in love’ is not typically just losing yourself completely in the person you’ve set your heart on, but instead self-obsessing about your need for that person. Take a teenage boy who is desperately in love. He is incredibly turned in on himself and painfully, sometimes debilitatingly preoccupied with his own appearance and his own posture and his own actions and his own words in the presence of ‘the girl’.
St Paul talks about love in very different terms in the passage we’ve just heard again. Love is ‘patient’ – and ‘kind’. And love is largely negative – he’s all about what love isn’t: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-seeking, irritable, resentful. Love is not a teenage boy! Love is not childish, Paul says – childish ways come to an end, but love is adult, mature, complete, perfect, and unique.
On the other hand love is not some fuzzy feeling of universal love for everyone, as in the Summer of Love – Peace, Love and Harmony. Laid-back love. No, love is specific. That’s where the teenage boy got it right. True love is utterly concerned with the object of its love. But love does not seek to consume its object, love doesn’t seek to mark the beloved as her territory; rather the person who really loves is consumed by the beloved, puts the beloved’s mark on herself, makes herself belong completely to the beloved. Hence all the negatives: love is not self-seeking. Love is wholly defined by the beloved.
What St Paul unfolded practically in his exhortation to the Corinthians was later unpacked mystically by St John in that famous phrase: ‘God is love’. When the first Christians were shown the way of love they were caught up in the very mystery of God. God not only loves or is loving, but his actions, his attributes, and his essence are one. God loves because God is love. But as I said, love is not love without a specific object, a beloved. So later St Augustine unfolded this idea of God as love further by talking about God the Father as lover and his Son as the beloved. God himself ‘begets’ or gives birth to a beloved Son, and the love between them is so intense, so perfect, that the love in itself is a co-eternal, co-divine person: the Holy Spirit. This love is God.
The Father gives himself wholly to the Son to the extent that a third person proceeds from their unity. And the Son, being the Son of the Father, in turn gives himself, and gives all of God, to us; he ‘emptied himself’ as St Paul said elsewhere. In his love he put our mark on himself, made himself human, united himself with us in a human birth and in a human death. Everything he has is ours and everything we have is his.
The Father in his love puts the Son’s mark on himself and says: this love is what I’m about; this love is God.
Love is ‘face to face’, mutual knowledge, not just knowledge about the other. As Job said, at the end of his book: ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you’.
A child acts like a child, speaks like a child, thinks like a child; a child imitates. Mature love is not like anything; it is direct, and real. ‘Love is a many-splendored thing’. ‘Love lifts us up where we belong’. In the silence, let us pray to be caught up in that love.