Today’s epistle, taken from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, is unmistakably his most beautiful piece of writing. Quite possibly, one might also argue that it is his most important theological teaching as well—it is up there, even, with his teaching on the Holy Sacrifice, which we read in his Epistle to the Hebrews.
It is necessary to understand that the word that we render as “charity” in English has a more specific meaning. It is not simply “charity” in the sense that we use it to mean “giving to the poor,” or “feeding the hungry” or “clothing the naked.” Saint Paul wrote in Greek, and the word he used in this case is “άγαπυ,” which translates into Latin as “caritas,” hence the English “charity. This “άγαπυ” means a noble, unselfish, exalted sort of love—distinguished from the romantic, physical thing that we also call love. Specifically, Paul is referring to the love of God, which we must have in response to His love for us—the charity which, together with faith and hope, makes up the theological virtues.
Indeed, Paul reminds us that this love of God is the greatest of the theological virtues. In heaven, faith will remain, but it will be somewhat changed, as we come to know God directly, “face to face,” rather than through the “dark glass” of revelation. In heaven, hope will remain, but it too will be somewhat changed, being based no longer on trust, but rather on fulfillment. But the only possible change in the virtue of charity, is that it may become more profound; that we will love God even more deeply as we come to know Him “face to face.” If the scriptures place a great emphasis on the virtue of faith—if they insist that we must believe the things God has revealed to us—it may well be because knowing God and believing Him are the first steps toward loving Him.
God’s love for us is infinite. In fact, some speculate that all of creation is a sort of “explosion” of God’s love; a sort of “overflowing” of the love of the three divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity. And like all love, God’s love demands that it be returned by the beloved. We’ve all seen this in human affairs: when someone loves another, the desire to have that love returned is all consuming; greatly rewarding if it is returned; potentially destructive if it is not.
God’s love for us—this caritas—is unselfish; indeed, self sacrificing. It is not unlike the love of a father who protects his home and family at all costs, or the mother who protects her children without regard to her own danger, or the soldier who puts his live on the line for his native land. As our Lord described it Himself, at the Last Supper, “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends.” This is precisely what our Lord was talking about in the beginning of today’s Gospel: that He, “the Son of man, would be mocked and scourged and spit upon and put to death.”
The Gospels record our Lord making similar statements a number of times during His few years with the Apostles. And each time, we read something like what we read today: “They understood none of these things.” We even have Saint Peter trying to talk our Lord out of the idea! He tried the first time, right after being appointed the Rock upon which the Church is built—right after being appointed the first Pope, he tried to convince Jesus that maybe going to Jerusalem to be crucified wasn’t really such a good idea—for which, in reply, our Lord equated him with Satan, the devil. And Peter tried again, just a bit later on Mount Thabor: “Lord it is good for us to be here ... let us set up three tents, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elias” for staying up here on this mountain certainly beats going to Jerusalem.
Now it is said that Peter really didn’t understand our Lord’s words until that moment, late on the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus was being interrogated in the courtyard of the High Priest, and Peter denied our Lord three times, just as He had predicted earlier that evening. And then, he finally did understand, and “he went out and he wept bitterly.” He wept for two reasons. The most obvious, of course, was that in spite of his boasting that he would never let such a thing happen, Jesus had indeed been taken, and Peter had been unable to do anything more than lie his way of possibly being taken with Him to the Cross. Secondly, Peter had come to realize that this generosity of God laying His life down for His friends was made necessary by Peter’s own sins.
Just about all of the great spiritual writers are agreed that this recognition of helplessness, and this recognition that it is our own sin that brought about the crucifixion, are absolutely necessary for growth in the spiritual life. Just as they were necessary for Peter and the other Apostles, these recognitions are necessary for us if we are ever to be more than immature children in the spiritual life. And it is not enough for us simply to know these things as facts that can be learned and repeated to a teacher—they require our emotional commitment as well. At least figuratively, if not actually, we must weep with Peter over our helplessness, our failings, and God’s generosity.
One of the greatest evils in the assault upon our Catholic Faith in the modern world is the attempt to separate Christ from the Cross—to suggest that there can be a Christianity without the Holy Sacrifice of Christ—so to speak, to have Easter Sunday without Holy Thursday and Good Friday—to have the Resurrection without the Crucifixion—to speak of a “paschal mystery” that emphasizes spiritual joy without the necessary weeping for our sins. This is the same mistake for which Jesus told Peter, “get behind me Satan!” It is the refusal to recognize Jesus Christ in the Holy Mass as “the holy + Victim, the all-perfect + Victim”—it is the failure to ask God to accept the perfect sacrifice of “unending salvation” as He accepted “the offerings of Abel ... the sacrifice of Abraham ... and that which [His] chief priest Melchisedech offered ... a holy sacrifice and a spotless victim.”
It is a terrible mistake not to weep with Peter over our sins in the face of Christ’s generosity—a terrible failure not to recognize that the Son of man had to be “delivered to the Gentiles and mocked and scourged and spit upon and put to death” for our sins, and that He gave Himself up because “there is no greater love than” His. It is the kind of failure that can keep otherwise good Catholics from ever growing up in the spiritual life.
The Church presents these two concepts to us today—the unselfish love of God, and the suffering which He is willing to endure for our sins because He loves us. They are the theme that we are asked to adopt only a few days hence as we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday.
God is good: He has allowed us once again to spend these forty days in meditation of the truths of eternal salvation. We have many helps—the fasting and abstinence of Lent, the good works we may do, the Mass and the Sacraments and the sacramentals, the spiritual reading, and so forth. With these things, we can “go up to Jerusalem” with Him. And, hopefully, we will cry a few tears with Peter as we admit our helplessness, and the dire nature of our sins, as we recognize that only the Sacrifice of the One who loves us is enough to deliver us from eternal ruin.