Sacred Scripture has been thrust to the forefront of our attention in the year just closing by the Roman Synod dedicated to ‘The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,’ and also by the celebration of a Pauline Year (June 28, 2008-June 29, 2009) to mark the second millennium of the Apostle’s birth. The voice of Paul has roused the people of God from inertia at many turning-points in their history. Origen at the end of his life found new perspectives in writing his commentary on Romans; there was a string of commentators in the fourth century, and it was Paul who effected Augustine’s conversion and taught him his profound doctrine of grace; the Reformation was born of Luther’s encounter with Paul and the Council of Trent in turn meditated deeply on the Pauline message; again, the most powerful 20th century movement of Christian thought, the Dialectical Theology of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, is largely based on a reading of Paul. Today Paul may rouse the Church to life again, if we can find the approach to his writings that is appropriate to our present needs.
To do that, of course, we need to listen, and in this case to listen means to study. Paul is a difficult writer, though a supremely powerful one. I can think of no better way to honor the Pauline Year than to form a group to discuss meditatively one of Paul’s letters, using any suitable commentary as a guide into the text. For the individual, to delve into Scripture is always a bracing experience, which raises the whole tone of one’s life. This experience is multiplied in group study. If every parish had a Bible study and meditation group it would enrich and sustain the study the use of Scripture in the liturgy – the place where Scripture comes into its own and is heard by the community as a living word. Such a study group could create a milieu of scriptural culture establishing secure lines of understanding and communication between preachers, lectors and hearers. A shared taste for Scripture, a shared interest in the many topics that Scripture invites us to explore, would infuse meaning into at least one part of our worship, the Liturgy of the Word.
There has been a fear throughout history of putting the Bible into the hands of the laity, and some residue of that fear may be with us still. The Lineamenta for the Synod reflected a divided attitude: we want the laity to be nourished by Scripture but we fear they will abuse it! ‘Many Christians remain without any contact with the Bible and the danger is always present that it will not be used properly. Without the truth of God’s Word, relativism becomes alluring in people’s lives and thinking. This situation urgently warrants a total and complete knowledge of the Church’s teachings concerning the Word of God’ (par. 4). As a teacher of literature, I imagine that such an over-protective attitude to the laity’s readerly response to Scripture can only be stultifying.
The 55 Propositions published by the Synod reflect a more positive outlook. There are some references to group study: the Synod encourages ‘groups of sharing and meditation, in order to counteract the attraction of the sects and of fundamentalism’ (proposition 47) and invited seminarians ‘to take part in meetings with groups or associations of laity gathering around the Word of God. These meetings, which have developed for a sufficiently long period of time, favor in future ministers the experience and the taste for hearing what the Holy Spirit is arousing in believers gathering as the church’ (prop. 32; http://eapi.admu.edu.ph/bodega/synod.htm).
Of particular interest to those teaching Scripture, or ‘The Bible as Literature,’ to non-Christians in Japan is the statement that ‘it would be helpful to organize groups for reading the Bible also in secularized environments, or among non-believers, as a way to open the world to God by means of the Word of the Bible’ (prop. 41). The Japanese Church has its fair share of eager scholars of Scripture who could animate and guide such groups.
Group discussion of Scripture would be especially valuable for the preacher, whose role is to facilitate ongoing dialogue and two-way illumination between the biblical witness and the present experiences of the community. The preacher may pursue that dialogue in solitude and duly share his findings with the community on Sunday. (I say ‘his’ in view of the fact that preaching in our church is still the preserve of males and clerics.) But the resonance and power of preaching will be far greater if there is a context of group discussion, which will give character and pith to the preacher’s words and keep it rooted in a firm grasp of what we call revealed truth. Such truth is not the sort that can be encapsulated once for all in propositions, because it is the truth of an encounter, a relationship, which changes, grows, and shows different aspects each time we come back to it.
The guild of biblical scholars have built up a vast world of learning. Sadly, their work is largely unknown outside their own circle. Preachers seeking to navigate the ocean of exegetical literature are likely to be discouraged by the swirl of alternative hypotheses surrounding every issue. Yet in a way they are more happily situated than academics in dealing with this great mass of scholarship. There is no pressure on them to solve the questions the commentators pose or to make any original contribution to the debate. They have the luxury of being able to pause and meditate prayerfully on the text, rather than race from commentary to commentary in search of scholarly refinements. Sharing Scripture in a group that has no academic agenda is a formula for a deep mental and spiritual enrichment that academia rarely offers.
What I am urging here is not any kind of onerous duty, but something deeply pleasurable. Twice in my life I took part in a Talmudic discussion (in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh and in Jerusalem), and I recall that though the topics of the text were niggling details, the practice of bandying about each person’s individual reflections and suggestions on them created a communal and contemplative harmony, almost as if we were sharing a good dinner. Perhaps Scripture is more intimidating, or we feel we know it all already, or perhaps we adopt a stuffy and over-serious attitude to the Bible that prevents us finding both enjoyment and stimulation in chewing over texts such as those of Paul. To read a book of the Bible together over a period of several weeks or months is a voyage of discovery that hold many unpredictable surprises in store. It is a journey to be undertaken not in doubt and anxiety but with a relaxed, serene trust that the reading experience will be a time of growth and enlightenment for all participants.
An Ecumenical Journey
Paul has been to a large extent an absentee from Catholic thinking and he is a ‘closed book’ to many priests, who rarely sound the Pauline note in their preaching. Catholics have had more affinity with the Paul of the deutero-Pauline letters (Colossians and Ephesians) and the Pastorals – texts to with some Lutheran exegetes ascribe the responsibility for creating ‘early Catholicism,’ taming and institutionalizing the Pauline inspiration. Our image of Paul has also been shaped by Luke’s presentation in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul works in total harmony with Peter and the dispute recalled in Galatians 2 is airbrushed. The Paul we know less well is the author of the seven letters that are assuredly from Paul’s own hand, which are, in chronological order: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans (and Philemon). The harmonization between Paul himself and Luke’s portrait of Paul defended by the Norwegian exeget Jacob Jervell in The Unknown Paul Essays on Luke-Acts and Early Christian History (Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1984) is valuable as a challenge to a doctrinaire adherence to the conclusions of German exegesis, but it seems to bring the disadvantages of putting Paul in contradiction with himself even more than the authentic letters already do.
The core of Paul’s original thought is found in Galatians and Romans, his most difficult and challenging texts. These were the favored Scripture of the Protestant Reformers, and study of them even today draws insights from the great commentaries of Luther on Galatians and of Melanchthon and Calvin on Romans. To wrestle with these texts is an ecumenical journey, bringing us closer to our Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican friends, and to preach on them is to step into the shoes of Protestant preachers over the last half-millennium.
For Luther good works can never justify us in the sight of God. Such ‘works of the law’ (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:27-8) include not only the details of the Torah but the Decalogue itself, and cover not only good works done by human power and free will but also works enabled by divine power and grace, including the work of loving God and neighbor. The Law reveals our total incapacity for righteousness and prompts us to embrace the righteousness conferred freely by the divine mercy because of Christ. This righteousness never becomes an inherent quality of our souls but remains a gift conferred from outside, extra nos, so that our life in Christ is a situation of being taken outside ourselves and transferred to a new mode of being in dependence on the Savior. Catholics can feel more at ease in exploring this profound Lutheran vision since the historic Joint Declaration on Justification agreed on by Lutherans and the Vatican at Augsburg on October 31, 1999. How Luther’s insights accord with the different emphases of Jewish and Catholic traditions is a question we need not be in haste to resolve. We can draw on all these traditions as we seek to wrestle with the issues as they present themselves to us today, in openness to new horizons and perspectives.
Today to read Paul is to become involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Some of the most fascinating books on Paul come from Jewish pens, e.g. H.-.J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (London: Lutterworth, 1961) or Alan Segal, Paul the Convert (Yale UP, 1990). The ‘new Paul’ of recent scholarship – building on the work of W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders – is based on a positive reappraisal of Paul’s culture as a Jew and as a Pharisee. The theme of ‘justification by faith’ is now placed in a wider context, in which Paul’s quest for righteousness is seen as continuing the age-old effort of Israel to live in fidelity to the Covenant. Paul seeks to build up the people of the Covenant, ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16), on the basis of ‘the law of the Messiah’ (Gal. 6:2), which fulfils and surpasses the Jewish Torah.
To really enter into Paul’s mind, we need to be quite enthusiastic about the Torah. As a good Pharisee, Paul thirsted for righteousness and found in the Torah a path of righteousness for himself as an individual and for society as a whole. In Christ he found a righteousness that was divine gift rather than human achievement, stemming from an act of pardon followed up by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Law of Moses is good and holy, but Christ fulfils the Law’s demand of holiness in a new way, by taking on our sin and clothing us with his own righteousness instead. One can fully appreciate this ‘wondrous exchange’ only if one has first internalized the love of righteousness that the Law instilled in Paul.
Quite possibly, Paul never fully sorted out the logic of the relations between the Law and the Gospel; even within Romans there are many statements that are difficult to reconcile with one another; see Heikki Räisänen, Paul and the Law (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987). Thus his writings offer us not a cut-and-dried solution to all the questions but a terrain for ongoing discussion between Jewish and Christian concerns. Such discussion could be a joyful ecumenical enterprise rather than an edgy territorial negotiation. Those who say that Christians should not become involved in interreligious dialogue since it compromises the certitude of faith forget that the New Testament itself is a site of interreligious controversy, marked by contradictions not only between different authors (Matthew, James, Luke-Acts, Hebrews, Revelation, John) but within these authors or their schools. The theological status of Judaism, and particularly of the Jewish Law, is a matter on which the New Testament authors are puzzled and divided. It is a theme for open-ended interreligious dialogue, such as the Church is only now learning to practice.
We should not be over-anxious to sort out all the riddles of the Jewish-Christian relationship or to want Paul to have solved them. I appreciate the broad perspective opened by works such as John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford UP, 2000) and Sidney G. Hall III, Christian Anti-Semitism and Paul’s Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), who see the central theme of Paul as the opening up of salvation to the Gentiles. But these authors surrender to political correctness when they try to play down the tensions between Paul and the synagogues that resisted him at every step – to the extent of blithely declaring such embarrassing texts as 1 Thess. 2:14-16 and 2 Cor. 11:24, both of which fit smoothly into their context, to be later anti-Semitic interpolations. The latter text – ‘Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one’ – might reflect the synagogal discipline that Paul himself would have inflicted in the errant believers whom he persecuted. Gager and Hall claim that Paul’s vision of the Law as a harsh pedagogue who brings us to conviction of sin refers not to the Jewish experience but only to that of Gentiles who had tried the Jewish law – a very implausible reading. The ‘hardening’ of Israel is said to consist only in their resentment of the grafting on of the Gentiles, not in their rejection of Christ, who, it is suggested, is a Savior for the Gentiles rather than the Jews.
Paul’s entire discussion of Judaism in Romans 9-11 should not be read as a detailed prophecy of the future, but as the cogitations of a troubled man who puts his trust in God’s fidelity to his people. He envisaged the final coming of God’s Kingdom as an imminent event, whereas our framework of thinking is conditioned by a sense of evolution and history unknown to Paul’s time. All this leaves the relation of the Jewish and Christian paths quite open-ended. Both strive together toward the future, confident in divine promises, united and divided by the figure of Jesus Christ.
Actualizing the Pauline Gospel
A problem for preachers of Paul is that the whole issue of the Jewish Law, central to the polemic of Galatians and the majestic theological vision of Romans, is very remote from us. No one is urging Christians to be circumcised and practice the Torah today. Why continue to discuss a problem resolved long ago? Paul’s urgent message is likely to fall flat unless we are able to actualize it in some way. Even the actualizations of Paul in Augustine’s doctrine of grace and Luther’s doctrine of justification can seem tangential to the concerns of contemporary believers and unbelievers. The Pelagians’ confidence in their ascetic achievements and the medieval obsession with ‘works-righteousness’ that the Reformers claimed to diagnose are memorable historical forms of ‘bondage to the Law.’ But we need to ask what is the ‘Law’ that dominates the lives of people today and prevents them from embracing Christ as the foundation of their lives.
Today do people seek to make themselves right before God by accumulating merits and performing good deeds? Do they worry about the Day of Judgement? Or do they obey a more mundane law, seeking to prove themselves in society by their achievements, their success, their prosperity? Preachers often denounce greed, but much of what we call greed is actually a form of bondage to the Law. People want to have successful and beautiful lives like those of their neighbors not so much out of mere envy but because they feel that they should, that it is their duty to succeed and that their failure is culpable. Pressure from employers or family reinforce this ethics of achievement. The tyranny of social expectations, or, for many, the hard necessities of survival, impose a law that grips our existence so tightly as to make the constraints of the old Torah seem a holiday business. The worries induced by capitalism in flux are as oppressive as the scruples of our forebears seeking justification in works.
Paul’s writing does not lend itself to direct applications to our circumstances. It is rather the mind of Paul, acquired by wrestling with his texts, that can serve as a resource for our own thinking. When we immerse ourselves in the old Pauline controversies, with all their obscure points and unanswered questions, we receive an education in flexible and penetrating theological discernment Paul ‘knew the ropes’ and was always able to bring scriptural insight to bear on complex situations. His handling of Scripture is remarkably free – it is never the application of a dead letter, but rather entails a daring rereading of the old texts. Paul speaks to us from God, and his lightning words open up so many paths of thought that their meaning is literally inexhaustible. When the preacher takes up a Pauline text, it can set the mind racing to new overtones and applications that bring Paul into our midst again, as a living interlocutor and an ambassador of Christ.
Dealing with the Galatians controversy, for example, the preacher could begin by celebrating the Law and the entire Jewish way of life as wonderful, and then go on to highlight what is still more wonderful about justification and sanctification in Christ. He or she could then broaden the theme to the practice of virtue in work, family, society, celebrating this, too, as wonderful, but showing it needs a deeper underpinning than is usually suspected. Achievements of work, however good, run into limits and failure; family relationships will often need to draw on an infinite reservoir of forgiveness; the secular city, for all its great achievements, will face situations of conflict or injustice that can only be resolved by a generous rethinking of basic claims and premises, beyond the framework of even the most enlightened law. The ‘law’ of work, family, society, brings us to awareness of our need of the deeper forgiveness and more daring love that Christ represents.
Retrieving the horizons of Pauline Hope
Paul wrestles with questions that chime with modern anxieties. We have seen how the message of justification overcomes moral anxieties. Is he equally convincing when he tackles our anxiety about mortality? His answer to worries about guilt is ‘Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins’ (Gal. 1:3-4). His answer to the fear of death is the same Jesus Christ whom God the Father has ‘raised from the dead’ (Gal. 1:1). But rather than just repeat the answers loudly, as a hollow preacher might, Paul is always thinking through the questions anew in order to reappropriate the answers more luminously.
Though Paul is the first and foremost model of Christian preaching, he may seem to leave preachers in the lurch when he talks about the Resurrection, for he speaks not as an ordinary transmitter of faith but from the privileged standpoint of an Apostle, directly commissioned by the risen Lord (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16-17) and holding colloquy with Him in ‘visions and revelations’ (2 Cor. 12:1). What makes this more accessible is the way it is ‘cashed’ in the style of Paul’s apostolic existence. United with Christ crucified, he witnesses to the recurring wonder of resurrection, especially in the way his ordeals bear fruit in the lives of others: ‘Death is at work in us, but life in you’ (2 Cor. 4:12). That is why hope for Paul is not a weak wishfulness, but a concrete force: ‘in this hope we were saved’ (Rom. 8:34). No one has shown more clearly what the Paschal Mystery means in practice, how it takes flesh in the lives of believers. To bring the Pauline message to people struck by illness or bereavement, the preacher should have internalized as much as possible the Apostle’s dynamic of death and resurrection, not only in words and thoughts but in exposure to the suffering Christ who meets us on every side.
Another aspect of Paul’s preaching that seems to leave us in the lurch is his expectation of an imminent return of Christ in glory. He is convinced that a great salvation is close at hand – perhaps a universal salvation, since it will embrace ‘the fullness of the gentiles’ and ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Rom. 11:25-6), so that ‘God will be all things in everyone’ (1 Cor. 15:28). We have to adjust this language to our own very different experience of time and history. In this we are helped by the way Paul himself rethinks and develops his message, as may be seen in comparing 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11 with 1 Cor. 15.
Again the message becomes accessible and convincing as we see how it shapes the way he lives. ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead’ (Phil. 3:13), Paul accepts our mortal, temporal condition without defensiveness, convinced that the God who is at work in Christ, ‘reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19) will bring that work to glorious completion at the end. This fundamental attitude of trusting hope makes Paul, despite his tumultuous temperament, a deeply happy person, able to ‘rejoice greatly in the Lord’ and to be ‘content in every situation’ (Phil. 4:10-11). If the preacher wishes to convey this hope and joy, beyond mere rhetoric, the place to begin is with the study and imitation of Paul. This is a training in the spirit of energetic confidence – hope is too weak a word for it – that allowed Paul to say: ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’ (Phil. 4:13).
Pauline hope acquires its full stature only when it can also be fleshed out as a social Gospel. At Vatican II, the Church espoused anew the eschatological horizons of the New Testament, seeking to read ‘the signs of the times’ in dialogue and cooperation with the world, as it strives forward in joyful hope toward the full coming of the Kingdom of God. The notion of building up God’s kingdom on earth has been played down again in recent decades, as was most apparent in the phobic rejection of Liberation Theology. The preacher’s task is to reconnect the message of the Kingdom with the worldwide thirst for justice and peace. Here we may discern that Paul’s ethic of up-building and of freedom has a field of application beyond the boundaries of the Christian community. As he opened the Gospel up beyond Judaism to Gentile believers, so today’s preachers may be inspired by him to open it up, in dialogue, to people of good will everywhere, including those of other religious traditions.
Paul’s expectation of the final triumph of the Gospel can still be claimed by us, despite the obsolescence of his apocalyptic scenarios. The mode of existence that his expectation made possible can be shared with all people as Christians make themselves present on the front lines of the struggle for peace and justice. To facilitate such a move, preachers will seek to open up the Gospel beyond a churchy enclave, and even to open Paul up beyond Paul – as Paul himself was always doing.
Paul’s Ethics of Love
The sections of moral exhortation that come at the end of Pauline letters should not be divorced from the theological arguments that precede them. Paul is the great thinker, the great questioner in the New Testament. He does not blithely toss out wise sayings or good advice; rather each of his statements is the end-point of a long process or thought and questioning. Paul’s moral preaching comes at the point when the community has been securely established in the freedom of the Gospel. Now that we are ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ in Christ, Paul asks, how should we enjoy and cultivate the gift we have received?
It is because of this happy situation that Pauline ethics has so many attractive and rather modern traits. First, it is an ethics of conscience, not of external prescriptions. Paul is not primarily concerned with rules and regulations, but rather appeals to our conscience, asking us to ‘behave in a manner worthy of the Gospel’ (Phil. 1:27). Second, Paul’s is a flexible and developing ethics (in line with Abraham Lincoln’s dictum that any great principle may and must be flexible). Study of his moral reflections on difficult issues, such as divorce (1 Cor. 7), shows him to be an exemplar of the kind of seasoned thinking that we today have to practise as new questions arise. Many quarrel with Paul about his obiter dicta on women’s status and behaviour (1 Cor. 11:3-16), homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-7), slavery (Philem. 12), capital punishment (Rom. 13:4), or query what they perceive as an unduly repressive or dualistic attitude to sexuality. It seems to me possible that Paul would have welcomed such discussion, drawing on his usual sources of wisdom to pursue it. He is the polar opposite of a fundamentalist. And if the morose ‘introspective conscience of the West’ has battened on Paul, that is perhaps less his fault than the result of his readers’ narrow perspective.
Third, Paul’s ethics is rooted in freedom, a freedom to be preserved not only from bondage to external Law but also from ‘the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:23), to which many would-be advocates of perfect liberty become unwitting subscribers. The preacher should be able to communicate Paul’s intoxication with ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21). At a time when fundamentalists trap consciences with the letter of Paul’s texts, it is through steeping ourselves more thoroughly in those texts that we can acquire the true spirit of Paul, following in his great footsteps as ‘servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6).
Fourth, Paul’s ethics has a concrete goal, the building up of the community. Nothing exercises his wits more than the concrete problems of human co-existence. As a larger than life personality he must have made many mistakes in his dealings with ordinary people, but he learned from his mistakes. It seems that the Galatians were unimpressed by his angry letter to them, and his later letters are more strenuously diplomatic, more seamlessly gracious, culminating in the serene majesty of Romans. His joyfully constructive ethics of responsibility, of service, of ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ (Gal. 6:2), thus building up the body of Christ, entails an all-round vision of the social dynamics and consequences of human actions. The thirst for righteousness finds its complete fulfilment in the creation of a wholesome, holy community, in which each one is concerned with the welfare of all. The preacher can bring this ethics out from under its bushel and show its value for our society today, as a remedy to alienation and divisiveness. Paul’s ethics comes into its own when it takes on the proportions of a contemporary social Gospel.
Finally, Paul’s ethics is centred not on duty but on love. Indeed, one can say that love is the last word not only of his ethics but of his entire theology. Instead of repeating generalities about love, the preacher should see how Paul’s account of it draws its point from all that has come before. Just as a mathematician will not be happy if you give him the answer to a problem without telling him what the problem is and how it was worked out, so to understand the full power of Paul’s answer, we should follow again and again the process wherein it emerges. With Paul we recall how the Law made exigent demands of us, and how we are now able to fulfil all those demands, for we have been enabled to love. Those who do not have the freedom of love, who are cramped by worry, by career demands, by bitterness, can acquire the power of love by ‘clothing themselves with the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 13:14).
Faith, hope, love – those words are a complete summary of Paul’s message. Every Christian shares with Paul these ‘theological virtues’ (which are directed to God, give possession of God, and are gifts of God) Paul and they form a bond of understanding with the Apostle even when his difficult arguments perplex us or the exalted place from which he speaks leaves us stunned. Paul comes down from the heights to address us where we are, his voice reaching us warmly, passionately, across the millennia. It is a privilege of the preacher, after listening responsively, to be able to translate and transmit something of the power of that voice to a society still hungry for its message.
A Wedding Sermon
“It is not every day that one communicates with someone who has spoken with the risen Christ. Recently, I flipped open the Bible in search of inspiration and came on the words, ‘Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love’. This is the voice of Paul, called the Apostle because of his encounter with the Risen one, thrice dramatically depicted by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles and discreetly alluded to by Paul himself – God ‘was pleased to reveal his Son in me’ (Gal. 1:16); ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9:1); ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me’ (1 Cor 15:8).
“Paul is in his usual inspiriting form in the text I stumbled on, from an obscure corner, tucked away amid greetings at the end of 1 Corinthians (16:13-14). Someone might deem it platitudinous or superficial to toss out such a piece of advice as ‘Let all that you do be done in love’. Surely one expects something more original and profound from the first and greatest Christian theologian? But the depth of the phrase quoted strikes us when we note that it is an after-echo of an earlier passage in the letter, the ode on love chosen as our second reading today (1 Cor. 13).
“This is a morceau de bravoure on which Paul has evidently laboured. Paul was a stunning rhetorician (as his fellow-rhetorician Augustine points out in De doctrina christiana IV), but in the genre of prose, whereas here the rhythms are more like poetry. He has just been talking about the variety of gifts in the community, and here he identifies the best gift of all, the gift of charity or love, agapê. His ode is itself a gift to the community, in line with what he says further on: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification’ (1 Cor. 14:26).
“To the young couple we say: You have brought a gift today that is better than any hymn or lesson. Your love is a gift to one another, but it is also a gift that you have agreed to share with the whole community today. It is a gift that edifies us, that builds us up. We ponder again on this amazing event called marriage.
“The early Church was inventive in new ways of loving dedication, monastic communities, consecrated virginity and the like. Though it did meditate on the blessings and virtues of marriage (Clement of Alexandria and Augustine), married love was not in the forefront of its thought in the first centuries, except in commentary on the Song of Songs, prized as an allegory of Christ’s love for the soul or for the Church. Only well into the second millennium did the Church formally recognize marriage as a sacrament; perhaps the development was impeded by the too ready association of sexuality and sin that caused so much confusion. Only in the 20th century was the full value of the sexual dimension of marriage recognized. (This widening of thought encourages those who hope for church recognition of other forms of loving commitment, as the State has recognized them in the Pacs system for example.) Marriage is in some ways an invisible sacrament – no water, bread, wine or oil. The sacrament is administered by the couple to one another. A sacrament is an earthly sign of the heavenly, and the sign here is the love of the couple, an image of divine love; or even more basically, the couple themselves, formed in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26), reveal the divine glory in the glory of human fulfilment.
“What are we most likely to feel regret about when we look back on our lives? That we did not attain some great goal, that we did not write this book or climb that mountain? Or that we did not sufficiently love? Rudeness, selfishness, indifference, unforgivingness, harshness – so many missed opportunies of living in love. Hearing the chants today, I recalled summers long ago with Les petits frères des pauvres and their evening prayer: ‘Avons-nous vécu, Seigneur, cette journée selon Toi? Avons-nous été humbles, patients, aimants? Avons-nous été des frères pour nos frères?’ If the final judgment were an exam paper, the question would be not ‘What did you do?’ but ‘Why did you do it?’ If you can answer ‘out of love’ then, bravo, your life has been truly meaningful. If not, you are ‘a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal’ (1 Cor. 13:1) and your life has been ‘full of sound and fury’, ‘signifying nothing’, as a sad figure in Shakespeare discovered. The answer may be simple, but not everyone works it out. And to find it is always a happy inspiration, a gift of grace. When you find it, you must decisively claim it, as a pearl of great price.
“What is the meaning of life? Faith gives an answer, but the language of faith can seem obscure – for what is meant by such words as grace, redemption, justification or even the very word ‘God’. Hope gives an answer, but hope can become vague too and disappointments can seem to negate it. Without love, our faith and hope grow dim. Love is what anchors them in the reality of a present, daily practice. Love is the key. Happy the one who can say that they have found this key, that they have love in their life.
“‘Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ (1 Cor. 13:13). Theologians have a lot of time for Paul’s vision of faith, his teaching of how Christ frees us from bondage to the law, clothes us in his own righteousness, catches us up in the Paschal Mystery. Theologians also like Paul’s vision of hope, wherein ‘the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God’ (Rom. 8:19) and ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21). But the theologians tend to pass over quickly what he says about love, as being too simple, or just a moralizing appendix to the meaty theology. ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law’ (Rom. 13:8). Who would expect a brilliant thinker like Paul to end his message on such a simple note?
“Yet though love may be expressed in simple everyday acts of kindness and concern, it is the point of arrival of the laborious questionings of faith and hope, and it gives flesh to what faith and hope affirm. Love puts its stamp on every act, gives every small effort of generosity or forbearance a creative value as weaving the web of family and community, building up a world brimming with the blessings of peace. St Gregory Nazianzen sounds hyperbolic when he says: ‘We should call God to mind more often than we breathe and, if one may say so, one should do nothing else’ (Discourse 27, 4). But if we do everything with love we are in tune with divine creativity at every moment. ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ – all our deeds can undergo this transmutation, take on this supernatural value.
“The creativity of your love, like the creativity of an artist, does not being in a void, as if there were no tradition behind it. Your love is sustained by a history. The mutual consideration and support of your loving parents, and warmth and protection they gave you will stand you in good stead. The lives of faith of your families stand behind your act of faith today, which opens a new chapter in this creative history opens, uniting two beautiful families and two beautiful countries, Ireland and France,
“We all rejoice with you today, and the Church rejoices with you. In a world where people have so much difficulty making a commitment, and where so many people live in isolation, you are a beacon of hope. Our wish for you is that everything you do, in the great adventure before you, will be done in love.”