On the Essence of Love
[Jer.1:4-5, 17-19; 1Cor.12:31-13:13; Lk.4:21-30]
One word we often hear is ‘love’. Even the Bible (NRSV) mentions it 538 times. But what does it actually mean to love someone?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was an English poet. In her famous Sonnet #43, she expresses the many different ways she loved her husband, Robert Browning.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach ….
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise …
In only 14 lines she describes 11 different ways to love. Before they married, Elizabeth and Robert wrote each other 574 letters in 18 months. They certainly knew something about love.
But her father didn’t. He was possessive and controlling and kept her a virtual prisoner at home until she was in her forties. He wouldn’t let her marry, so she and Robert Browning had to escape to Italy.
St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) also knew something about love. He was born in an Italian town near Rome. His family was wealthy, but they were also possessive and controlling. When he was 19, Thomas announced that he wanted to become a Dominican priest. They were outraged. They kidnapped him, imprisoned him in a castle and tried to make him change his mind, but he refused. Eventually he escaped, too.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Nazareth, telling the people about God’s love and his mission to bring hope, healing and freedom to the poor, the blind and the oppressed. At first they love his preaching, but when Jesus says that God’s love isn’t just for them but for everyone, they become angry and try to kill him.
Jesus escapes, just as Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Thomas Aquinas did.
So many people think they know about love, but really don’t understand it at all.
Many people think they know about love, but really don’t understand it at all.
In our second reading, St Paul is talking to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church had many talented members, but they came from very different backgrounds and they couldn’t agree on many things. St Paul tells them that they really don’t understand what love is, then he describes it to them in 15 different ways – explaining what love is, and what it’s not.
He makes the point that genuine love isn’t just a feeling; it’s a decision, an act of the will. Love may begin with an intense desire to be with someone, but it only lasts if we behave in ways that strengthen the relationship – like being patient, kind and trusting, and not being jealous, pompous or selfish.
But the thing to remember is that love isn’t just a feeling. It’s a decision. St Thomas Aquinas once said something similar – he said that love is in the mind, it’s in the will and in the decisions we make. It’s not just a feeling.
St Paul adds that regardless of how talented we are, if we are without love, then we’re nothing. Whenever we do something, if it’s without love, then it’s ultimately empty and worthless.
Then he says that there’s no point saying we love someone unless our actions match our words. We can say the right words about loving God and each other, but if we don’t show it in the way we live, then we’re really just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
And finally, St Paul says that when the time comes for us to go to heaven, the only thing that matters is love. Everything else is left behind.
Blessed Mother Teresa knew this. She described love as a one-way street, always moving away from the self in the direction of the other. It’s the ultimate gift of ourselves to others. When we stop giving we stop loving, when we stop loving we stop growing, and unless we grow we will never attain personal fulfilment; we will never open ourselves out to receive the life of God. For it’s only through love that we encounter God.
Some people say they love their music, their cars or their ice cream. But this isn’t Christian love. The essence of Christian love is the decision we make to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of those we truly care about.
That’s what Jesus did, by choosing to die for us on the Cross.
Christian love isn’t a feeling. It’s a bold decision to sacrifice ourselves for someone else.