13 Jan 2013
“Love is …” (1 Cor. 13: 4) In the name …
Bp. Hodur chose this ancient Christian hymn to the virtue of love to be read at the beginning of every year on the First Sunday after Epiphany. I think he wanted to remind all of us what church and faith are supposed to be about. As we begin the work of another year, our organizing bishop is asking us to keep what we do in perspective. All the various Masses and meetings, all the fundraisers, dinners and breakfasts, all the Sunday School classes and choir rehearsals, all the good we try to do for our communities and the less fortunate, and all of the hassles we endure to make church work, all of this must be done for Christian love or all it is, is a “noisy gong or a clashing cymbal.” If we ever lose track of the purpose of church and our faith, then, says St. Paul, we “gain nothing.”
Now if I say the words “Silent Night,” of if I say “Amazing Grace,” I’m thinking that a lot of you automatically begin thinking about the hymns by those same names. Well, St. Paul is hoping that the people of Corinth will do exactly that when they hear these words in his letter about Christian love, that it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” These are the words of one of the first Christian hymns ever composed. When those earliest Christian congregations gathered in one person’s house or another’s, this is one of the hymns they would sing together. Christians knew these words even before Paul wrote them down. This hymn celebrates one of the principal tenets of the Christian faith. “So faith, hope, love remain, these three,” says St. Paul, “but the greatest of these is love.”
If you read 1 Corinthians 13, and if you read the chapters around it too, you might then ask yourself why would Paul feel the need to give this much attention to Christian love. He starts off by talking about how absolutely essential love is in the Christian faith. Then Paul speaks about how that love shows itself. It is patient, kind, humble and forgiving. Then he says it bears and endures all things. Paul is here offering a lesson on how to live together for the common good because Paul was dealing with the problems caused by spiritual pride.
Some of the Corinthians were bragging about their own individual spiritual gifts and about who was holier than the rest. To all of this talk about who was the most important individual in the church, Paul was saying, “You’ve got the whole thing backwards.” Faith is not about individuals. Our faith is about community. All of the talents and time that we can give to our faith, all of the sacrifices we are willing to make for our church, all of the moral accomplishments we can count in our lives, if these are not done for the reason of Christian love, if they are not done for the good of the whole, if they are only done with me, myself and I in mind, then they are what Paul would call childish practices.
This hymn that Christians sang in the first generation church was Paul’s reminder that Christianity is about our love of God and just as importantly about our love for each other. And Paul adds the unexpected and jarring announcement which introduces the hymn that a person can be exceptionally in tune with God, they can even be prophets, they can even have faith to move mountains, he says, but if they are not just as exceptionally concerned about the people around them, then says St. Paul, “I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13: 2) And what is uplifting about this ancient Christian hymn of love that Paul incorporates right into his message is that it wasn’t sung as a warning or a judgment. It was composed originally as a celebration. The earliest church relished their co-dependence, that they supported each other, that they could count on each other. They realized that together they were stronger than any one Christian could be alone.
I was out blessing homes this past week, making some evening visitations over in Sunderland. It was dark out when I rang the doorbell at this one house. The father was in the basement, the mother in another room and the children in the front room. When I arrived unexpectedly the mom and two young daughters were a bit startled. When I eventually was let in the house, when they finally realized it was only the priest and not a robber, the seven-year-old told me that she was standing ready behind her mother with her fists all set to pummel anyone who tried to break-in to their house. I guess every little bit counts. And that truth doesn’t change when it comes to the house of God. That biblical message still isn’t meant as a judgment or a warning. It’s still meant as a celebration of this community that is our church, that together we are stronger than any of us could ever be alone.
This is why I refuse to speak about Mass as an obligation. It completely distorts the reason why we are here. “‘The Sabbath was made for [us],’ Jesus once said, ‘not [us] for the Sabbath.’” (Mark 2:27) We’re called here not because God says “You better!”, but because Mass makes us better. We’re strengthened by God and we’re strengthened by each other. By coming together we are exposed to possibilities we would never have experienced or maybe even imagined without the community of faith. The other day on NPR I was listening to a story about why elite colleges can’t seem to increase the diversity of their student bodies. NPR: Elite Colleges Struggle to Recruit Smart, Low-income Kids
Even the offer of a free education can’t move the numbers of lower-income students upwards. Then they discovered that a vast reservoir of high achieving low income students are out there, but they’re in places and among peers who don’t offer them even the expectation of more. Alone we set-up boundaries. Together we challenge boundaries. This is why together at Mass, together as church, we will always be stronger in the faith than any one person could be alone. That we may celebrate the power of the Christian community which helps each of us and all of us to be ever stronger in the faith, and so that we can rejoice and sing with the first believers about the power of Christian love, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo