Eleventh in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30
One of my favorite movies – and it tends to be a favorite among the people I know – is Rob Reiner’s 1987 “storybook story” The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen it, go treat yourself. If you have then you know it is beautiful, it is quirky, and it is very very quotable. One of these notable quotables is a running gag in the first part of the film, in which the villain Vizzini says the word “Inconceivable!” whenever something goes not according to plan or otherwise escapes his understanding. And after the fifth or so time he says it, one of his companions – the Spaniard swordsman Inigo Montoya – turns to him and says, “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.” In a similar way, I think, we tend to throw around the word “love” a lot. We love our family, our friends, our pets, ourselves, our bodies, our homes, our jobs, our favorite book, our favorite movie, our favorite dessert, getting a massage, listening to our crush talk about anything, the feeling of the hot sun on a cool breezy day, the feeling of a cool breeze on a hot sunny day, etc. And while it is true that we feel strong – sometimes very strong – attachments to all these things and more, to call it all “love” seems (to me, anyway) far too simplistic and misleading. How do all these different expressions of so-called ”love” co-exist with how we profess to define love in the larger, more philosophical sense?
In the Church, we believe that to love is to desire the greatest good of one who is loved. And the Triune relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is said to be the ultimate expression of that concept; as we confidently say, “God is Love.” The Incarnation mystery itself is the earthly playing out of that Trinitarian drama of existence so that we can perceive and understand in ways that we can see and hear and touch and even smell and taste that each one of us, from the greatest to the least, is a part of that mystical eternal ever-creative Love. All well and good, at least for the one hour out of 168 each week that most of us are paying attention. And then we who believe, whether a little or a lot, will turn right around and do ridiculous, insensible, and even downright mean things. Sometimes we do it directly, but oftentimes we do it indirectly, without thought, too caught up in ourselves and our own passions to think things through or look at the big picture – or even see who’s right in front of us. I do it. You do it. We all do it.
To put it another way:
Saint Paul gives us a definition of love in our Second Reading, in what is perhaps the most beautiful, the most quirky, and the most quotable passage in the New Testament. Whether it was written entirely by him or he expanded upon an earlier source, Paul’s exaltation of love as the “still more excellent way” of striving for one’s spiritual gifts is a favorite at both indoor and outdoor wedding ceremonies and a constant reference for hymnists and other Christian poets and songwriters. With unusually concise deliberation, he tells us that to exercise any other gift or talent or ability of ours without love is to do nothing at all or worse (“If I speak…but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal”). He gives us a litany of things that love is (patient, kind, rejoices in truth) and that love isn’t (jealous, pompous, rude), and tells us that it is the only thing that will always last. It will even last longer than both faith and hope, which at the end will outlast everything else.
This isn’t the quite the emotion that describes the rush we feel when close to our crush or the placebo effect of drinking, say, a chocolate milkshake with a shot of chambord. This isn’t even the feeling that propels two people into becoming husband and wife (divorce rates will give witness to that). Love is different than these feelings; it is a much sterner, more durable force. Love is something that is weak and strong at the same time. It is that thing which alone “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,” and “endures all things.”
Love is why, in our First Reading, God could tell Jeremiah the Chronically-Depressed Prophet to keep speaking. Jeremiah operated in the days both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to and the beginning of the Babylonian exile. He knew the end was coming; God had told him as much. But it was his task as one with the gift of prophecy (Greek propheteia, meaning “speaking on another’s behalf”) to pass that message to the people for them to receive and to take seriously or not. And in this time the people would not have it, and there will be no comfort for the prophet anywhere. God does not tell Jeremiah to stop simply because the people will not listen, but in sending him out He does not simply abandon him to his task. God tells him: “They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you.” And why does He tell him this? Look at His first words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you.” God knew who Jeremiah was before Jeremiah knew who he was himself. He knew him even before he was born! And that intimacy, that love which so closely unites Jeremiah to God will endure to give Jeremiah the strength he will need to exercise his prophetic gift, even in his many moments of uncertainty and fear to come.
“No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” These words of the God-Man in today’s Gospel sadly apply just as much to Himself as they do to Jeremiah, and reveal to us that love was also Jesus’ strength in His comparatively short ministry. The incident recounted today comes just after the fascinating incident in the Nazareth synagogue that we read last week. He had revealed – “indistinctly, as in a mirror” – the hearers of His message to be part of His mystical Body, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy along with Him. Now those parts will openly rebel against their Head. The other Gospels simply tell us that Jesus was not able to work any mighty deeds in Nazareth because of the people’s lack of faith, or that Jesus understood human nature so well He knew not to trust even those who blindly followed Him. But Luke’s investigation gives us this disturbing account that, when read along with Saint Paul’s letter, brings the reality of the situation into sharp focus. The people of Nazareth were so unable and unwilling to accept what Jesus was trying to tell them that they tried to drive Him to the edge of town and run Him off the edge of a hill. This is their neighbor, their friend, someone they’d known and Whose family they’d known for years, perhaps for all His earthly life! But when He began to reveal Himself to them – not even in the full dire manner of Jeremiah, but just the little bit that He did in this episode – they could not bear it. They did not believe it. They dared not hope in it. They would not endure it. What the Evangelists’ accounts relate as a lack of faith – and what Jeremiah himself would ponder as a lack of hope – Saint Paul’s context reveals as a lack of love.
“So faith, hope, love remain…but the greatest of these is love.” My spiritual advisor once said in a homily that love is the greatest of “these three” because at the end, confronted with the reality of all we believed in and all we desired, faith and hope will no longer be necessary. Faith will be replaced with sight, and hope will be replaced with fulfillment. But love will still be there, and will always be there. Do yourselves a favor and learn to love – to really love – what you believe and what you desire. Don’t simply pierce the veil, but embrace what it covers. Show that unfailing and limitless mercy and compassion and love that you expect and trust to receive. Don’t boast, don’t brood, don’t seek your own interests, don’t rejoice over wrongdoing. Accept and endure all things in patience and kindness: the good and the bad; the beautiful and the ugly; the awaited and the unexpected; the satisfying and the disappointing; even those things you find “inconceivable.” Because in the end, love is the only thing we’ll have left. And we’ll know in all fullness that it’s the only thing we ever really needed.
Love is indeed like a storybook story. And it’s realer than the feelings we feel.