Brides and grooms, or perhaps mostly brides, thumbing through the Church’s preparation for marriage booklets will often select some early verses of chapter 13 of St. Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians as the second reading for the nuptial Mass. The happy phrases are familiar to all: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love 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 does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Certainly a young couple, or any couple for that matter, could not set better objectives for their life together than St. Paul’s litany of thoughtful and tender responses to the many challenges of married life.
Yet, St. Paul’s original letter was not addressed simply to engaged couples nor to married couples. St. Paul’s epistle was addressed to the whole Corinthian church. Clergy and laity, men and women, families and singles, the able and the disabled, were the recipients of what St. Paul proposed as “a yet more excellent way.” The word “love” in modern translations for the original Greek word “agape” understandably casts an aura of romance over the Apostle’s caring words. Older translations from the Greek into English — including the hallowed Douai-Rheims Catholic text and the revered King James Protestant text — employed the word “charity” instead of “love,” happily broadening the meaning of the Greek word “agape”. St. John actually uses the Greek word “agape” in its verb form when he writes majestically in 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” These are certainly loving words, but they are hardly romantic words.
Re-reading St. Paul’s celebrated verses in the older translation using “charity” instead of “love” better projects the broad, practical scope of Christian responsibility. Consider these phrases: “Charity suffers long, and is kind; charity envies not; charity vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Charity never fails.”
Reflect on St. Paul’s ardent phrases. Not just married couples but every Christian is expected to suffer long, bear all things, endure all things and be not easily provoked.
It is easy to get aggravated with fellow office workers, with customers, with neighbors and other drivers on the road. Patience under stress is charity indeed. Every Christian is expected to be kind. Kindness is the phone call to the ailing relative, the sympathy card to the bereaved neighbor, a word of support to the new employee.
Charity is neither envious nor jealous. Envy has its eye on another’s goods and inordinately desires them. Jealousy keeps its eye on one’s own goods and refuses to share them. Charity dismisses both materialistic considerations. True charity does not brag. It “seeks not its own, vaunts not itself, and is not puffed up.” The charitable person knows that his or her good qualities will speak for themselves. There is no need for self-promotion. Especially in the present climate of vulgarity, suggestiveness and casual morality, it is important to recall that “charity does not behave itself unseemly.” Charity respects the dignity of other persons by being guarded in both words and gestures.
Authentic charity “thinks no evil” and is therefore neither judgmental nor prejudiced. Charity never assumes fault nor imputes lesser motives. Rather the charitable person “rejoices in the truth” taking a realistic look at a neighbor’s strengths and weaknesses, rejoicing in the one and dealing realistically with the other. And charity is always willing to give a neighbor the benefit of the doubt. “Charity believes all things and hopes all things,” writes St. Paul.
The Apostle here is not suggesting that the true believer is simply optimistic or actually naïve. Charity believes and hopes in the fundamental goodness of human nature in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. God does not make junk, a recent maxim insists, original sin notwithstanding. And so the Christian will always look for the reasonable explanation, the redeeming factor, the justifying plea when faced with a challenging situation. Charity never jumps to a hasty conclusion.
The love that must support married life and the charity that must underlie community life are never easy options. Love and charity are stimulating Christian choices that must be renewed every day. Yet, in spite of any immediate challenges, love and charity will prove themselves the best decisions in the long run. “Charity never fails,” St. Paul insists.
True believers will take heed of the Apostle’s insights and persevere in St. Paul’s “yet more excellent way.”