You will find nothing in the world’s literature that matches St. Paul’s “sublime Canticle of Charity” (Fr. Plassmann) in today’s epistle. This encomium to the divine love that is infused in our souls at baptism is singularly precious. Far from being milquetoast and sappy, St. Paul’s noble conception of love could never be mistaken for the effeminate or perverse counterfeits the world has to offer. His idea of love is that of a Christian virtue, and it challenges human nature to rise, with the grace of God, to a supernatural height of perfection. The Apostle shows that the charismatic graces, such as prophesy, or tongues, or miracles, are nothing when compared to charity. Those things have as their purpose to build up people’s faith, but charity, as the Apostle tells us, is greater than even faith.
The List. He catalogues a list of things charity does and does not do, and ends by giving us a glimpse of the perfection of the Christian life on earth and in Heaven. I would like to pause on each of these attributes of charity for our consideration today.
“Charity envieth not”: Do you lack a grace, a talent, or a possession that someone else has? Does that make you angry? Do you grumble or belittle that person as a result? Then you have not charity, or have it in only a small degree.
“Dealeth not perversely”: Charity does not seek to use other people to get personal gain from their disadvantage. Honesty, justice in your business and personal dealings — including the timely paying of debts and respect for people’s property — are all enjoined on us. To be negligent in these things is to diminish the love of God in our souls.
“Is not puffed up”: This is pride, the single greatest obstacle to the action of God in our souls. Pride has us thinking we can be good without God or without the means God has given us to be good. Satan and Adam both fell this way, and how common a sin it is. St. Augustine tells us how sinister and dangerous pride is when he says this in his Rule: “For this is the peculiar feature of pride, that whereas every other kind of wickedness is exercised in the accomplishment of bad deeds, pride creeps stealthily in and destroys even good deeds.”
“Is not ambitious; seeketh not her own”: Self-seeking at the expense of the glory of God or the good or our neighbor is foreign to the charitable soul. Our one ambition should be to glorify God by saving our souls, living in fidelity to our Christian vocation. All else must be subservient to that.
“Is not provoked to anger”: To be angry with your neighbor and to react based upon that anger is to do the work of the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning. Our Lord tells us “whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment.” St. Paul told the Ephesians, “Let all bitterness, and anger, and indignation, and clamour, and blasphemy, be put away from you, with all malice.” And St. James: “And let every man be swift to hear, but slow to speak, and slow to anger. For the anger of man worketh not the justice of God.” With all these Biblical admonitions against anger, how can we still give vent to our anger at each other, either in the effeminate secrecy of gossip, backbiting, or detraction; or by open acts of hatred? We ought to consider ourselves, because the same dagger we plunge into our neighbor by our bitter tongue and bitter heart, will cut our own souls by cutting us off from charity.
“Thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity”: Do you find yourself dreaming of certain sins? Do you willingly entertain sins of lust or fail to mortify your eyes from seeing what will stir up your passions? Do you relish the thought of your enemy being hurt? Do you look at your neighbor’s every deed and voice suspicions about his private sins? Then you are clearly thinking evil and rejoicing in iniquity. Charity is small in your soul, if it be there at all.
“But rejoiceth in the truth”: The truths of the faith, the truths pertaining to virtue, morals, true happiness with God in this life and the life to come, the communion you have with the Holy Trinity in your soul through grace: these cause the Christian soul to rejoice with a supernatural joy.
“Beareth all things, endureth all things”: Your neighbor’s difficult mannerisms, the frustrations of your daily life at the job or in the home, the irritations your spouse or children may cause, the struggle to maintain sane family life in an anti-Christian culture, the gossip people spread about you, and the treason of those of your own household. All these things can be acutely painful; yet, the soul full of charity will bear and endure all things for the love of God. Those who are perfect, will not complain at all, or will reserve their complaints to those pertaining to real necessities.
“Believeth all things”: This is not to say that the charitable soul is credulous and gives credence to silly things — especially silly gossip — but the truths God has revealed find no obstacle in the soul truly possessed of charity, even if these truths are difficult. To those who love God, it is sufficient that God has revealed these things to us through his Church.
“Hopeth all things”: In the midst of all of life’s trials, we have hope that the promises of God are true. God has promised us eternal life, a crown of glory if we persevere in our trials. What can anything matter? What can disturb your peace? What can cause you to despair? St. Paul elsewhere expresses the hope of the Christian in the face of the miseries of life in terms of love: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Childhood / Manhood. Coming to the end of the Epistle, St. Paul says, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.” Why this talk of childhood and manhood in the context of an admonition on charity? Because spiritual manhood, spiritual maturity, is measured by the measure of Theological Charity in our souls. The degree of charity you have when you die will fix your place in Heaven, and you can go no higher. Spiritual “manhood” — the “fullness of the age of Christ” as St. Paul calls it elsewhere — is the perfect love of God and neighbor in our souls. A spiritual child — one who is imperfect — fails regularly in the practice of charity and the virtues that charity commands us to practice (such as those here listed by St. Paul), but the spiritual adult does not. How very sad it is that it is commonplace for us “adults” in body to act like silly little children in the spiritual life.
The Beatific Vision. And now we go from perfection to the Beatific Vision: “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” What’s the connection? As strong as the love of God can be in this life, it reaches its uninterrupted enjoyment in the Vision of God, where, without any medium between us and the Blessed Trinity, we will look upon our God and share divine intimacy with no sorrow or distraction or temptation. We will be ecstatically united to the object of our Love. But even in this life, those souls who hunger and thirst for the justice of heaven will be given their fill. Our Lord promised this in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Theological Virtues. “And now there remain faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.” These theological virtues are the divinely-infused habits which empower us to live as children of God. By the first, we believe what God has taught us. By the second, we hope in God’s promises, but by the third we enter into the Trinitarian life itself and the Holy Ghost, the mutual love of the Father and the Son, takes possession of our soul. Faith is not needed in heaven, where it is replaced by vision. Hope is no more, since it has been fulfilled. It remains for us only to love God and our fellow saints in God.
Gospel. A couple of words on the Gospel, which is tied in closely with the Epistle. Lent hasn’t even begun yet and the Church is already putting thoughts of the Passion in our minds. This is Our Lord’s final trip to Jerusalem, and he has his face set like flint to do the will of God and to suffer for our salvation. St. Luke’s account, which we read today, tells of the curing of one blind man. (We know from St. Matthew that there were two blind men and from St. Mark that the chief among the two – probably the one St. Luke mentions here – was named Bartimaeus, the Son of Timaeus.) Whether Our Lord cured one or two, and whether he cured them on his way to or out of Jericho is a point of some controversy, but it need not be. When St. Luke and St. Mark speak of one and St. Matthew speaks of two, there is no contradiction. The other evangelists have simply left out a detail St. Matthew chose to include. Only the ill-willed or the stupid will see a contradiction here. As for Jericho, there were two of them: the ancient city Joshua entered, and modern city build in Our Lord’s day by one of the Herods. Since they were in close proximity, one would be leaving the one while approaching to the other.
A detail of this event recorded by St. Mark gives us some insight into the burning Charity of the Sacred Heart, tying it in to today’s Epistle: “And Jesus went before them, and they were astonished; and following were afraid.” The Apostles were amazed at Our Lord’s steadfastness and fortitude. The Jews in Jerusalem wanted to kill him because of Lazarus; now He is eager and determined to go into the City. After St. Mark tells us this, he informs us of the same prophesy we find in all the synoptics, the shocking news of the Passion and Resurrection, which the Apostles did not understand, even though they had heard it before. Then, on the way, he cures the blind men and stops to cure them because they begged him, “Lord, that I may see.”
Here, we see Jesus as the very icon of charity that St. Paul so beautifully memorialized. Our Lord is patient with his Apostles – this is the occasion St. Matthew relates of the ambition of James and John and their mother and the rest of them are almost as bad, not wanting to hear Our Lord tell them of the Passion. He is kind to the blind men and takes pity on them. He deals not perversely with the high priests and his other enemies. He is going to confront them directly. He is not puffed up with pride, for he is doing the will of his Father, not his own will. He is not ambitious for self-gain, but for the salvation of our souls and the glory of God. He is not provoked to anger; for he is moved by the love of His Father and for us sinners. And he rejoices in the truth that he is doing the Father’s will. Finally, he bears all things and endures all things with invincible fortitude for us men and for our salvation, and to the praise and glory of the Holy Trinity.
And the greatest of these is his charity.