Love and the Second Person

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of the Year. Jer 1:4-5.17-19; Ps 70; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Lk 4:21-30

Today's Second Reading, which is all about 'love', is one of the most famous in the New Testament and is especially popular at weddings, "Love is always patient and kind ... Love does not come to an end ... there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love." St Paul is not referring here to 'love' in the sense that we say in modern English, for example, "I love chocolate." The word he is using for 'love' is agape, translated into Latin as caritas, is a special kind of love between persons. In today's homily I want to examine what this caritas means.

What is it mean to love another person? The answer is complicated because there are different ways in which people can love one another. Classically, these three ways are the love of pleasure, the love of usefulness and the love of friendship. The love of pleasure is perhaps especially common among the young and the love of usefulness is when another person is useful to oneself and vice versa, like a business transaction. Pleasure and usefulness are, however, at best incomplete unless they are founded on the third kind of love, the love of friendship, and it is this love which is agape or caritas.

So how, then, is the love of pleasure and usefulness differ from caritas? The difference is essentially this: to love someone with the love of pleasure or the love of usefulness refers back to oneself, even if this love is mutual. It is possible, therefore, for two people to say to one another the words, "I love you," without having the love of friendship, but only the love of mutual pleasure or utility. This kind of love is first personal and it is unstable without caritas, because it risks degenerating into a competition between two egos, driven by the suspicion or fear that the other person is getting the better deal. Hence there are the various corruptions of relationships that St Paul refers to: jealousy or boastfulness, conceit, rudeness, selfishness and so on. When the relationship of couples degenerates into arguing, for example, about whose turn it is to do the cleaning, that may be sign that caritas has faded away into a competition of egos. So first personal love is not adequate for caritas, the love of friendship. A poetic illustration of this principle is given to us by Dante, who describes an allegorical journey into hell. Dante places the mutually lustful in the second circle of hell, but then descends to the wrathful and slothful in the fourth circle. Relationships based on no more than mutual pleasure or utility risk degenerating into souls tearing one another to pieces and fruitlessness.

Love that is not first personal is not, however, automatically caritas. There is a subtle kind of false love that involve apparent selflessness, but is cold and harsh. This kind of selflessness is what St Paul also warns about in the Second Reading. It is possible to have the eloquence of angels, or faith in all its fulness to move mountains or even to give up one's life, and yet to be without caritas, to lack, in other words, the love of friendship. As St Catherine of Siena warned centuries ago, it is possible to have martyrs to evil. This false love is only an abstract love or commitment to an ideology, not a genuine love for a person. Today's Gospel provides an example of this false love. Many of the people in Nazareth had been faithful to the conditions of their covenant with God, and had passed this faith down for generations. Yet when God himself appeared in person, some of them at least tried to kill him. Even at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, it is a shock to remember that some people in his own town nearly threw him off a cliff. These people had a false or inadequate love of God that was merely a love for God in the abstract. One could call this love third personal love: with third personal love, one is capable of knowing about another person or about God or even prophesying about God, but one does not really know God.

So if first personal love is inadequate, because it refers only to oneself, and third personal love is inadequate because it treats the other person in a cold and abstract way, what kind of love is caritas or the real love of friendship? Caritas is second personal, and is something that can be experienced but is very hard to put into words. To relate to someone in a second personal way involves a kind of alignment with the other person and a desired union of soul with the other person. At St Paul says, this kind of love is associated with patience, kindness, delight, trust, hope and endurance among other things. In God, this caritas is not some mere characteristic of God, but is itself a person, the Holy Spirit, whose principal symbol in Scripture is that of fire.

How, then, do we acquire this caritas, this genuine love of friendship? Jesus tells us that love grows cold where there is wickedness, so we need to repent of sin: so to return to the sacrament of Confession is a pre-condition of caritas if we have sinned in some serious manner. Above all, however, we have to pray and ask God for the gift of love and to be prepared to surrender to where that love takes us. This is why the Irish say, "The family that prays together stays together", because caritas comes from God. Here a devotion to Mary is of great help, because her caritas is immaculate, without stain or imperfection. Above all, however, and with the help of Mary's intercession, we should ask in particular for the Gifts of Holy Spirit, who is the Love of God. I would like therefore to conclude with the most famous prayer to the Holy Spirit, adapted from Psalm 103, "Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth."

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