Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The second reading at Sunday Mass since the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time has come from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We have listened as the great missionary to the Gentiles has described the Church as the Body of Christ, with each member of the Church playing a part in the good ordering and working of that sacred Body. Likewise, Paul tells us, the Holy Spirit gives particular spiritual gifts to different persons, but all those gifts are given for the sake of the whole Body. These charisms are inspired by the Holy Spirit for the building up of Christ’s Body the Church. A good test of a spiritual gift is how it is experienced and used: while every spiritual gift will benefit the person to whom it is given, the purpose of the gift is never exclusively personal, but rather is for the whole Church. So these different spiritual gifts and ecclesial functions are, St. Paul teaches us, to lead to the harmonious functioning of the community – the gifts that God bestows upon believers and upon the Church tend toward deeper communion.
With that foundation, St. Paul teaches the Church at Corinth that each of them ought to strive for the greatest spiritual gifts and more. The “still more excellent way” that Paul outlines is most popularly read at weddings. Beautiful and romantic as it may be, St. Paul was not thinking primarily of romantic love as he wrote, nor was he anticipating crafty wall-hangings with his words as wedding gifts. Rather, he was teaching the Christian community in Corinth about the law of love that must guide all Christian disciples. In other words, Paul is laying out the more excellent way: greater than receiving the highest spiritual gifts from above is ordering our lives according to law of love, the imitation of the example that Jesus gives in the Gospel, the love that St. John’s famous letter says is God’s very nature. If we want to live by the law of love that God lays out for us, we must be patient, kind, and humble. We must forgive wrongs, gently correct errors, and rejoice in the truth.
In many ways, this wonderful passage can be an examination of conscience. Am I patient and kind? Am I jealous or pompous? Am I inflated or rude? Do I seek my own interests, am I quick-tempered, do I brood over injury, do I rejoice over wrongdoing? Can I honestly substitute my name for the word “love” in any part of this passage? Asking the questions broadly allows us to then drill into the details. When and how have I lacked patience or kindness? When and how have I been jealous, pompous, inflated, or rude? In what circumstances have I sought only my own interests instead of the needs of others? When I have I withheld forgiveness for those who need it? When have I rejoiced over wrongdoing – or turned a blind eye to it?
Making this examination of conscience, we ought to see also the enduring quality of love. St. Paul leads us there as he says “Love never fails.” Of the great spiritual gifts, faith, hope, and love remain, but of those, love is the greatest. When we come to the end of our lives and prepare to meet the Lord, there are only three spiritual gifts we will need – all the talents and gifts we have received and used throughout our lives are no longer necessary, but we still need the gift of faith. Faith allows us to believe in the life that is to come, to affirm our confidence in the God who is so merciful to those who call upon Him. We need the gift of hope, which allows us the confidence that we can be forgiven, that the sufferings and sins of this life are not the defining characteristics with which God sees our souls. Hope enables us to ask for mercy and know that we can be forgiven. And we need the gift of love, which binds us in the intimate communion of heart with our heavenly Father. But when we get to Heaven, faith and hope fall away, for they are no longer needed. In Heaven, we have the fulfillment of those gifts. But the gift of love, our capacity to love, endures. The immortal soul is still able to love, even after death, even in the eternity of Heaven! For there, perfectly contemplating God face to face, united with Him, we love without boundary or limit. Love then, is the greatest of the gifts, it is the highest law for us to follow, it is the thing most necessary if we are to progress in holiness and virtue. May St. Paul’s teaching take root in our hearts, that cultivating all the spiritual gifts, we may choose each day to follow the still more excellent way.