FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love never fails.” 1 Cor. 13: 10
Here’s a question for you. What do the following letters stand for?
“GTG?” “BRB?” “ROFL?” “LOL?”
If you’ve been involved in sending text messages, you’ll know instantly what they mean. If not, “WFI”… “wait for it.”
Adam Gropnik, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, told a compelling story in a recent radio interview. He began by asserting that he was beginning to believe that ordinary conversation has been replaced.
Gropnik said he had discovered that the best way to keep in touch with his 12-year-old son was to send text messages back and forth and then proceeded to describe how he happened upon this breakthrough experience. The two of them were sitting next to each other in the living room while they watched a hockey game together. Almost accidentally, they began sending text messages back and forth – again, while sitting right next to each other!
What delighted Gropnik is that, in the process, his son taught his dad the different abbreviations: “GTG” for “got to go” … “BRB” for “be right back” … “ROFL” for “rolling on floor laughing.” But before his son could go any further, Gropnik excitedly informed him that he already knew the meaning of “LOL.”: It means, Gropnik proudly declared, “Lots of love.”
Wrong, he was informed. It means “laughing out loud.”
Gropnik was admittedly embarrassed, but, as he explained, even miscommunication can help bridge the gap between father and son. Ever since then, Gropnik was happy to report, they end each day with those same three letters: “LOL.” Laughing out loud. And, of course, lots of love.
Let’s be honest, though. Understanding the language of love – how to speak it, how to give it, how to receive it – has been a problem for people of all ages and all places. It certainly was in the time of St. Paul, as today’s second reading forcefully reminds us.
This passage we heard from St. Paul is one of the most beautiful descriptions of love ever written. It’s an all-time classic. So much so, that it’s printed on countless greeting cards and heard regularly at weddings. It’s even been used at funerals – most famously perhaps at the memorial for Princess Diana, where it was read by England’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
However, it’s become so popular a citation that it is often misunderstood, and misinterpreted. The fact is that St. Paul wasn’t writing about marriage, or romance, or the kind of “love” we hear sung about in much of our popular music. That was the furthest thing from his mind.
In the mid-50’s, when Paul wrote this letter, the church in Corinth was a mess. There were all kinds of feuds and factions. The church was so young and so new in its understanding of itself that there were dissensions and disagreements about almost everything.
As usual when human beings are involved in starting something very new, there were those who saw themselves to be more important than others; there were those who believed they alone had full understanding of the truth; and there were those who wanted to be considered more holy, more true to Jesus’ original teaching, and more knowledgeable as to what would be most pleasing to God.
As a consequence, there were those who were power-hungry, and those who were back-biters, and those who looked down on others. In other words, there were those who sounded a lot like people in our church of today!
This is what motivated Paul to write this legendary letter to the Corinthians. He wanted them to get their priorities straight. He wanted them to see that everyone contributes, everyone brings particular gifts, and everyone is an equally important part of the whole body. But what the entire community – the body of Christ – must understand, according to Paul, is that the ultimate charism, the decisive gift is love. Love for one another – it alone is the adhesive, the glue that holds the entire community together.
Listen to Paul again and note especially his repeated use of the word “all”: “If I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Then he draws a picture of what true love looks like: “Love is patient; love is kind. It is not jealous; it is not pompous. It is not inflated; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interests; it is not quick-tempered; it does not brood over injury …. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Paul’s writing is as timely and practical today as it was 2000 years ago when he wrote it. It’s a scriptural passage so authoritative and so gorgeous we all need to meditate on it and ponder it – again and again. It’s a letter written with so much passion and courage that, to this day, it challenges us; it centers us; it moves us; and it anchors us to what is real about ourselves, and what is most important in our connection with others. It’s a passage that binds the community together so that it truly becomes the body of Christ, the re-presentation, the enfleshment of Christ in the world we live in.
For Jesus and for Paul, love is not about romance – that’s too transient. Love is not about feelings – they’re too momentary. Love is not about lace and flowers and beautiful poems – as lovely as they are.
Instead, for Jesus and for Paul, love is about nails and thorns and a cross. It’s about sacrificing my own needs and desires for the on-going hard work that will transform each of us into people of service and generosity and mercy. It’s about dying to my ego for the sake of rising to something bigger, more permanent, and far more fulfilling.
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love never fails.”