4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 31, 2016
1 Cor 12:31—13: 13
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle
“Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12: 31).
Personally, I don’t care whether you call this One Corinthians or First Corinthians, and I use both forms, depending on how the spirit (lower case) moves me.
On the last 2 Sundays we heard St. Paul speak of different spiritual gifts that some members of the Church at Corinth enjoyed, gifts such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, miracles, discernment of spirits, tongues, and prophecy (12:8-10), and of how all these gifts of the Spirit contribute to the benefit of the entire body (12:12-13,27-30). Now Paul comes to the best part, “a still more excellent way.”
When little Therese in her convent at Lisieux discovered this passage, she tells us in her Story of a Soul, she discovered her “little way” to greatness, to holiness: the way of love—loving God and her sisters in the smallest and most ordinary details of daily life. You know very well, sisters, that in any convent those details of daily life are where the proverbial rubber hits the road. I assure you it’s no different in men’s houses; only the issues that irritate us and challenge us vary. Therese writes: “I recognized myself in none of the members which Saint Paul described [in ch. 12], and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. . . . I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting. Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy of my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. . . . In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love….” That secret of holiness is what has made Therese such an immensely popular saint, I think. For, apart from Donald Trump, who doesn’t deal with small and ordinary details in our daily lives?
Paul’s famous “hymn to love” is divided into 3 sections: the inferiority of the other spiritual gifts; the qualities of genuine love; and the permanence of love.
In the 1st section (13:1-3), Paul lists the wonderful gifts of tongues, prophecy, faith, and even martyrdom—but says they’re all worthless without love. What good is my faith if it doesn’t lead me to charity toward my sisters and brothers? What good is it if I firmly and unswervingly adhere to the Nicene Creed and the Catechism but am a witch to live with? What good is glossolalia, or today we might consider one’s facility with foreign languages, if it doesn’t serve the community, if I use my talent just to show off? What good is dying for a principle, even for Christianity, if it’s an expression of my own will or stubbornness or pride instead of being an act of self-emptying love for God?
In the 2d section (13:4-7), Paul lists some ways in which authentic love reveals itself and some faults that reveal the absence of love. Paul’s a practical, realistic man. He’s dealt with a lot of people, made some lifelong friends, and it seems, also alienated some people. Maybe he’s thinking of some of his own faults and strengths. How could anyone reading this chapter not become conscious of her own shortcomings! Anyway, we can find these faults in ourselves with greater or lesser frequency or tendency: self-importance, rudeness, a short temper, brooding over injuries, etc., and we know we have lots to work on. We aspire to patience, kindness, long-suffering (not the kind that draws attention to itself of course: “Oh, what a martyr I am!”), limitless hope, forgiveness, etc.—and to virtues that Paul lists in other letters, like joy, generosity, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23), chastity, truthfulness (2 Cor 6:6-7), etc. Our own experience shows us how our faults damage our relationships with each other and our community’s well-being, and how our virtues cement our relationships and build up the community, just as Paul was speaking of thruout ch. 12.
In the 3d section of the chapter (13:8-13), Paul insists that all other virtues and qualities will pass away; they won’t be needed in eternity. When we’re fully grown up, fully matured, love will be all we need (the Beatles were right, at least linguistically). When we see God face to face, there will be no need for faith. When we dwell in eternal light, there will be no more need to hope we attain it. But God is love, and we’ll be fully absorbed in him—and in all his beloved friends, all our sisters and brothers whom Christ has embraced in his love just as he has us.
Till then, we strive to anticipate eternity, strive to live out a complete relationship with our Lord Jesus, by loving—starting with our sisters (or my brothers) at home, in our every word, facial expression, and action, and beseech the Lord to convert completely our hearts and our attitudes into patient, kind, and truthful hearts and attitudes: in the words of this morning’s Collect, “that we may honor you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart.”