Love’s more excellent way of living is challenging

In the second reading this Sunday from the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear what many consider to be the most eloquent expression of love’s beauty and grace ever written by humans. The beautiful, rhythmic language can truly speak to us a very deep level of the nature of God and of our highest calling.

What does Paul mean by “love”? It is defined more by action than by mushy feelings or sweet words. The Greek word Paul chooses for love, agape, does not refer to the erotic, romantic love so often idealized in literature and music. Nor is it defined as “brotherly love,” or love given and received in friendship with others.

Rather, agape love reaches out to affirm, embrace and accept another without condition. It is purely unselfish, totally extravagant and uncommonly generous. It’s a love given with no expectation of receiving anything in return. It expresses the affection and commitment God extends to each of us in Jesus Christ. Agape love is not something we can win or earn or achieve by our own efforts. It is God’s gift to us.

The agape love Paul describes has little to do with my wants and needs. In the first part of the reading, the word “I” appears seven times. These are Paul’s way of telling us that our ego, the big “I” that walks proudly through our lives, too often defines how we express what we call “love.” To Paul, all that we are and do is as nothing, worthless without this self-giving gift of love. So, his language shifts from “I” to “love.”

Paul affirms: “Love is patient, love is kind.” But then he quickly moves to tell us what it isn’t. “Love does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil.” 

This “more excellent way” of living in love demands a maturity that can be quite challenging. Childish ways of keeping score of wrongs, repaying rudeness with sarcasm, self-pity, arrogant superiority and the expectation of a fanfare of gratitude for our good deeds – all must pass away. This final maturity of our love will reach perfection when we see no longer as in a mirror, but face to face.

Father Dennis Hanneman is a retired priest of the archdiocese. Contact him at

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