Love never fails? Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 4:21–30:

Jesus began speaking in the synagogue, saying:

“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’” And he said, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.

Have you ever felt a sense of déjà vu? Alert readers (and we have no other kind here) will note that last week’s Sunday reflection largely covered this Gospel reading. In discussing the meaning of the readings last week, I skipped ahead from the immediately preceding passage in Luke and added in this week’s entire reading.

So let’s instead focus on our second reading today in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Anyone who has ever attended a wedding will know this passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, after all. A friend or relative of the bride or groom usually reads this while the happy couple are kneeling at the altar:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it 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. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Now there is usually some irony to this, as the more cynical members of the congregation might be taking bets on just when love will fail in the marriage taking place at that moment. At times this passage almost feels like a mantra in a wedding ceremony, a kind of good-luck charm against failure. We have grown cynical because we all have seen “love” fail too often — almost constantly.

But is that a failure of love, or a failure of our conception of love? It might be both, and these failures come from a single source: our fallen human nature. Consider how Paul defines love in the first paragraph above by declaring all of the things it isn’t: jealous, pompous, rude, selfish, grudging, malevolent in spirit. Every single one of these anti-definitional qualities are part of our human nature rooted in original sin, with its core of overwhelming self-adoration.

And then consider how Paul describes what actual love does: “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Does that sound like human beings, or does that sound like the Lord? Consider the arc of salvation history from beginning to present, starting with the Garden of Eden. The Lord created Adam and Eve for close communion with Him, which they rejected. He gave humans stewardship of the world, and we continually turned our backs to him. God granted Abraham fathership of a great people from whom salvation for the world would spring, and then sent Moses to free them from captivity. The Israelites demanded kingdoms rather than fulfill their mission to provide the Law to all nations. Israel and Judah fell, Judah a number of times, and finally the Lord sent His Son to save us through His sacrifice, once and for all.

That sounds like bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things, does it not?

This may not be why this reading is nearly ubiquitous at weddings, but it’s why it should be. While this passage is perhaps ironic to hear at weddings when the cultural rate of marital failure is at an apex, it’s actually the best possible venue for this reading. It gives us a stark reminder of what marriage means in terms of our salvation. The family is more than just an economic unit or a nice way to have a contractual playmate. It is a model of the Trinity, a formation for us to grasp the true nature and depths of love rather than just our own passions and agendas. It is through this formation that we are called to participate in God’s creative power, and by doing so embrace the self-sacrificing caritas love rather than get distracted by either eros or self-love.

It is the Lord’s love that never fails, not our immature version of it. This is why Paul writes, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” Young children only know and understand their own needs before they can understand others. Unfortunately, we never quite outgrow that impulse, at least not through our own natures.

And in its way, this brings us back to today’s Gospel reading and the lesson from last week. It is easy enough for us to cheer “love” while misconceiving it as something that we define, control, and ration out based on how it makes us ourselves feel. It’s just as easy to cheer the idea of a Messiah when it’s our idea of the Messiah rather than one that serves the Lord’s plans. All of these readings call us to see past our own noses and to open our hearts to the Lord and to each other.

So throw the rice, toast the bride and groom, and pray that their marriage will form them toward God’s caritas love. And pray that their marriage will form us in the same way.

The front page image is a bridal couple crossing the Via Della Conciliazione at The Vatican in 2014. From my own collection. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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