A Penitent Blogger

Mindful of my imperfections, seeking to know Truth more deeply and to live Love more fully.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? Quem patronum rogaturus? Cum vix iustus sit securus?
Recordare, Iesu pie, Quod sum causa tuae viae: Ne me perdas illa die...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Liberating and exploring agape

The more a person goes to church weddings, the more a person is likely to have heard today's first reading (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13).

It is easy to see why it is so popular at weddings: in some translations it sounds like ideal advice for a couple about to begin their married life together - "Love is patient, love is kind..."

Except that it's not - at least, not exactly.

The sad truth is that our contemporary English words fail miserably in translating this passage.
The word translated in many translations here as "love" is agape (ag-ah'-pay). It does not mean romantic love nor does it mean what people usually mean when they say "I love my dog" or "I love my work."

The traditional translation of agape was "charity", but this word in many places today is used only in reference to organizations that help poor people.

To be sure, agape is very much related to married love and to charities. In the case of charities, St. Paul makes this very clear:

If I give away all I have,
and if I deliver my body to be burned,
but have not agape,
I gain nothing.

Likewise, agape gives a special and transcendent dimension to the love of man and woman (eros). (Pope Benedict XVI gives a wonderful reflection on this in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est.)

But what does agape mean?

One can take the academic route and look up the word in a Greek dictionary, but the New Testament meaning of agape is in many ways something different from what the word would have meant to the philosophers and poets of the period.

Indeed, one might say that the entire New Testament and indeed our entire Christian experience is centered around learning what agape means.

To be sure, agape is a self-giving love, but it is also itself a gift of God: indeed, as St. John famously says (1 John 4:16), "God is agape."

The greatest manifestation of agape is to be found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: the greatest gift of God, who gave himself totally for us on the cross.

We need to liberate agape from the limitations of romantic love, of philanthropy, and of academia and continue to explore the meaning of agape: beginning with this wonderful passage and continuing on in our story of the word, in our living out of the faith, and in our communion with God who is agape.

Earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,
but have not agape,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith,
so as to remove mountains,
but have not agape,
I am nothing.

If I give away all I have,
and if I deliver my body to be burned,
but have not agape,
I gain nothing.

Agape is patient and kind;
Agape is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.

Agape does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but rejoices in the right.

Agape bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.

Agape never ends;
as for prophecies, they will pass away;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For our knowledge is imperfect
and our prophecy is imperfect;
but when the perfect comes,
the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became a man,
I gave up childish ways.

For now
we see in a mirror dimly,
but then
face to face.

Now I know in part;
then I shall understand fully,
even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, agape abide,
these three;
but the greatest of these is agape.