Sunday, Feb. 3, is the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C). Mass Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; and Luke 4:21-30.
In his travels through Baffin Island in northern Canada, the anthropologist Franz Boas noted that the language of the local Inuit people contained many more words for snow than either German or English. For example, “aqilokoq” denotes softly falling snow, “piegnartoq” refers to snow that is conducive to dogsled driving, and “pukak” is used for crystalline powder snow. Because language is used to communicate the ideas and needs that are most vital for those who speak it, this diversity of terms for snow is not surprising. The Inuit people live with snow year-round, and its various qualities impact aspects of life, like hunting and travel, so having different words for various types of snow is important.
This aspect of human language can be helpful in understanding the first reading for today. St. Paul lived and wrote in the Hellenistic world, that is, in a time and place in which Greek philosophical thought had a great deal of influence. One such influence can be seen in the several terms used to refer to what we would translate as “love” in English: The term erōs describes an appetitive love of something that provides a benefit or pleasure to the one who obtains the desired thing; filia denotes the love between friends that develops out of a common interest or a mutual benefit between them; and agapē refers to a disinterested kind of love, meaning a love directed at the good of another. Such terms were deemed important since they enabled people — especially philosophers — to speak about the emotions of attraction, and this, in turn, helped them to explain how and why people act in the way they do.
While St. Paul certainly knew all of these various words for “love,” only the term agapē appears in today’s reading and throughout his letters. If we fail to take note of this fact, then we run the risk of misunderstanding Paul’s sublime description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 by confusing it with a passionate, romantic kind of love that is ultimately focused on the self. To be sure, forms of love that focus on the self are not in themselves bad; erōs and filia are forms of love that can indeed motivate good actions, such as the establishment of beneficial relationships and the procurement of life-sustaining goods. Yet the agapē that Paul consistently describes is a spiritual kind of love that motivates one to desire and pray for the good of another. For Paul, when one truly desires the good of another, then that person becomes another self — there is a profound and mystical union that comes about through this love.
One further point that Paul teaches us about this agapē: Human beings cannot hope to love with this love except by the grace of God. Through the grace of Christ we are infused with this agape kind of love at baptism, such that our hearts are elevated to be able to love — that is, to desire union with — God. In addition, this agapē love expands and deepens through our reception of the other sacraments, which derive their efficacious power from the ultimate show of agapē by Jesus Christ in his sacrifice for us on the cross. His display of agapē there shows us what it truly is to desire the good of, and union with, another. John the Evangelist’s words seem particularly appropriate for summing up Paul’s thought here: “in this is love (agapē): not that we have loved (agapaō) God, but that he loved (agapaō) us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.