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Unless you have charity...
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30
This Sunday's Gospel narrates the rejection Jesus meets at Nazareth, his hometown, the first time he returns after beginning his public ministry. This rejection elicits the famous remark, "No prophet is accepted in his own country."
We commented on Mark's account of this episode last year; we can therefore focus our attention on the second reading where we find a very important message. This is Paul's celebrated hymn to charity. Charity is the religious term for love. This is, then, a hymn to love, perhaps the most celebrated and sublime ever written.
When Christianity appeared on the world's stage, love had already employed various singers. The most illustrious was Plato who wrote an entire treatise on it. The common name for love at that time was "eros" (this is where we get "erotic" and "eroticism" from).
Christianity sensed that this passionate and desirous love was not adequate to express the novelty of the biblical concept. For this reason it avoided the term "eros" and substituted that of "agape," which could be translated as "spiritual love" or "charity" -- although the latter term has come to acquire a too restricted meaning: doing charity, works of charity.
The difference between "eros" and "agape" is this. Desirous or erotic love is exclusive; it is consummated between two persons; the interference of a third person would mean its destruction, its betrayal. Sometimes the birth of a child can throw this kind of love into a crisis.
The giving type of love, "agape," on the contrary embraces everyone, no one can be excluded, not even enemies. The classical formula of "eros" is pronounced by Violetta in Verdi's opera "La Traviata": "Love me, Alfredo. Love me as much as I love you."
The classical formula of "agape" is that of Jesus who says: "As I have loved you, love one another." This latter is a love that is meant to circulate, to expand.
Another difference is this. Erotic love, in the more typical form of "falling in love," does not last long, or it lasts only by changing its object, that is, by falling in love with different people successively. Of charity, however, St. Paul says that it "remains," indeed it is the only thing that remains in eternity, even after faith and hope have ceased.
But between these two loves -- that of seeking and that of giving -- there is not separation and contraposition, but rather development and growth.
"Eros" is the point of departure for us and "agape" is the point of arrival. Between them there is room for a whole education and growth in love. Let us take the most common case which is love between two persons.
In the love between a husband and wife "eros" prevails at the beginning, attraction, reciprocal desire, the conquering of the other, and so a certain egoism. If this love does not make an effort to enrich itself along the way with a new dimension, one of gratuity, of reciprocal tenderness, of a capacity to forget oneself for the other, and to project itself into children, we all know how it will end.
Paul's message is quite relevant today. The entertainment and advertising worlds seem bent on inculcating in young people that love is reducible to "eros" and that "eros" is reducible to sex. Life is presented as a continual idol in a world where everything is beautiful, young, and healthy; where there is no growing old, no sickness, and everyone can spend as much as they want.
But this is a colossal lie that generates unrealistic expectations, which, once they are not met, provoke frustration, rebellion against family and society, and often open the door to crime. The word of God makes it such that the critical sense in people is not altogether extinguished when this illusory vision of life is daily proposed to them.