A few years ago on Christmas day the movie Les Miserables opened to great reviews. It was based on the musical and the book of the same name. The author Victor Hugo, a nominal Catholic, lived in the 19th century. He’s also known for the book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Les Miserables is a spiritual story filled with Christian themes, and Christmas was a perfect day to release it. The story begins with the main character Jean Val Jean being released from prison. He’s been in jail doing hard labor for 19 years. He was sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He committed this understandable crime in order to feed his sister’s hungry child. After 19 years Val Jean is a bitter man raging against all people and institutions. But once freed from prison he soon falls on hard times. No one will hire an ex con.
After a time he meets a kindly Bishop who finds him sleeping in his doorway. Filled with pity the Bishop takes him in and gives him food to eat and a warm bed to sleep in. However, during the night while everyone is asleep Val Jean steals the silver and escapes into the night. He’s soon apprehended by the police who bring him back to the Bishop. They don’t believe his story that the Bishop would give his silver to this suspicious looking man. But the Bishop corroborates Val Jean’s story and tells the police that he did indeed give the silver as a gift (a holy lie?). Val Jean is no thief says the Bishop, the Bishop then goes on to say that Val Jean left so early that he left behind some of the silver. He then places two silver candlesticks into his bag. The police leave Val Jean in the company of the Bishop.
Val Jean is overwhelmed by the Bishop’s generosity; he can’t quite take it all in. He wonders, “Why is this man being so kind to me?” The Bishop then goes on to say that he has retrieved his soul for God and that his gesture of generosity is meant to awaken a similar generosity in him. This incident between the Bishop and Val Jean represents the heart of the Christian spiritual life. God is love, God is gracious gift of self, that’s all God is, love and gracious self gift. And God wants us all to receive that grace, to receive that love and to participate in it fully and then to give it away. We are to become imitators of the grace that He is. The Bishop’s act of giving away his silver is thoroughly gratuitous; there is no self interest in it. And now Jean Val Jean does the same. And he does using the silver he begins a new life. He becomes an honorable businessman participating fully in God’s grace by receiving it and giving it away reaching out to the poor and the destitute. We are to love like that we are to love like God.
And to love like that St. Paul helps us by giving us 15 characteristics of love. Giving us seven positive traits of love and eight faults that love is not. These are the traits of God, the traits of Jesus, and to take them on is to become more and more like Him. Now this love that St. Paul writes about is called agape in Greek. The Greeks have four different words for love and they are each used in different situations. It’s not like English where we use the one word love to express our feelings for anything or for anyone from an iced coke, to a spouse, or even for God. The Greeks are different they differentiate between the various loves. There’s eros for romantic and sexual love. There’s philia for the love between friends. There’s storge for the love parents have for their children. And finally there’s agape which St. Paul writes about in our second reading. This is a love that is totally benevolent and disinterested. It is willing the good of the other without expecting anything in return. This is the love that the Bishop expressed towards Jean Val Jean. This is the love of Jesus on the Cross. This is God’s own perfect love, and we strive to love in that way.
Chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians shows us how God loves and to make it even clearer for us wherever we see the word love in Paul’s letter we could replace it with God, because God equals love. So it would read like this: God is patient, God is kind, God is not jealous, God is not pompous, God is not inflated, God is not rude, God does not seek His own interests, God is not quick tempered, God does not brood over injury, God does not rejoice over wrong doing, God rejoices with the truth. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, God endures all things, and God never fails.
Now we could carry this exercise even a little further, replacing our name wherever we read the word love. So that it might read like this: Chris is patient (not always), Chris is kind (not always), Chris is not jealous (I fail there too) and so on. This letter of Paul’s is an excellent examination on loving like God. We can use this letter to the Corinthians as an examination asking ourselves: am I kind, jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, do I seek my own interests, am I quick tempered, do I brood over injury, rejoice over wrong doing, do I rejoice with the truth, bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.
You have homework this week, use the 2nd reading as a meditation this week, maybe read it out loud with your kids, tape it to the refrigerator. Let it be a constant reminder. Someday our love will be perfected, perfected through prayer, through grace, through the sacraments. Someday our love will be all these 15 characteristics. It might be in Heaven when we get there but we will get there, we’ll get there as long as we are faithful, faithful to prayer, to doing good, to Mass every Sunday, to the Eucharist, and to Reconciliation. Christ did not call us to a casual or lackadaisical approach to our faith. He calls us to be zealous in our love of God, to have a generous and merciful heart for our neighbor and to strive for the spiritual heights. As St. Matthew wrote in the Gospel, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley