The Spectrum of Love

Scripture Readings

Composing a homily for your friends is a different kind of beast because I know you too well to indulge in vague platitudes. What I can do, is invite you to pause for a moment and consider what you’re doing today in light of the Scripture readings you’ve chosen. The readings speak of love—the love that God has for us, the love we’re invited to share with one another, and the special love you’re committing yourselves to today. People often say that the word “love” means many things. In fact, I think “love” has only one meaning. Its essence is relationship.

The reason why love is such a difficult term to pin down is because it’s an analogical term. That means it’s a term that we apply to whole range of realities. In fact, the term “to love” can be looked at just like the term “to be.” Being refers to an individual’s existence. We say that existence is an analogical term because it refers to things that exist in different ways. Rocks and planets, stars and galaxies, matter and energy, exist in different but very similar ways. We use the same term to refer to plants and animals, even though living things exist in a far different and more complex way that inanimate things. Self-conscious beings like we humans exist in a still more complex way. Our way of being is very different from that of rocks and trees and even other animals. All these things exist, but in each case, existence means something a little different. And when we say that God exists, we take a step into the unknown because nothing that we experience exists the same way that God exists. As a result, when we say God exists, we can’t even imagine what that means.

Love refers to relationships between conscious beings and their environments. Love is also an analogical term. We can love mountains and stars; we an love cars and ice cream; we can love palm trees, cactus, and flowering plants; we can love cats and dogs; we can love tennis and movies; we can love family and friends. Each of these loving relationships is very different from the others. On a still higher plane is the love we have for our beloved, and the love we have for God and God for us. Like the concept of existence, the concept of love is different depending on what we apply it to.

As you know, the ancient Greeks invented philosophy. They wanted to analyze and understand everything. It’s not surprising that they analyzed the concept of love. They came up with three different terms to describe different facets of love. The first word they came up with was ερος (eros). That term referred to love as the fulfilment of a want—the satisfaction of a hunger—whether that be a hunger for food, or beauty, or excitement, or self-expression, or sexuality. We shouldn’t limit eros-love to just erotic love. It’s much broader than that. It describes a relationship that’s established for the benefit of the individual. Between two people, eros-love may be expressed as mutual self-fulfillment, but that’s not necessarily always true. Eros-love in a human relationship is necessary, but not sufficient.

The second word that the Greeks came up with to describe another facet of love is φιλια (philia). It’s often translated by “friendship,” but it’s more than that. It has two characteristics worth mentioning. The first is that philia-love establishes a bond. It’s more than just an ad hoc connection of convenience. The second characteristic is that each participant in the relationship values the good of the other over his or her own wants or convenience. There’s a level of commitment for all parties involved so that they will do what’s necessary—even going out of their way—to maintain their bond. Our COVID “POD” is a perfect example of philia-love. Philia-love is a necessary ingredient in any committed relationship.

Of course, the Greeks saw that there was something beyond even that, so they came up with a third word for the love that encompasses and goes beyond the other two. That word is αγαπη (agapē). The hallmark of agape-love is selflessness. It’s a commitment to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual good of the other without regard for self. It presupposes the self-care of eros-love and the commitment of philia-love, yet it’s a truly selfless love. Agape-love is what Saint Paul was describing in today’s first reading. Agape-love is always patient and kind. It’s never jealous, pompous, arrogant, or rude. It’s not self-seeking, quick-tempered, petulant, or vengeful. More than that…it’s willing to give everything—even life itself—for the good of the other. It’s agape-love that Jesus was speaking of when he said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

Agape-love is literally divine because it runs contrary to our most fundamental instinct—our instinct for self-preservation. People ignore that instinct for only two reasons: either an irrational fanaticism, or a love fueled by the grace of God. Agape-love doesn’t come naturally, so the commitment to live in agape-love is hard. It’s a life-long task, not a one-and-done thing. It involves choice after choice after choice to turn away from the demands of our own egos for the sake of the beloved while not anticipating any return on our investment.

Yet, that’s what Dino and Stephan have come here today to undertake. They’re not only pledging before us all to strive to live in agape-love. Even more importantly, they’re here to ask for the grace of God that brought them here to empower them to do for each other what otherwise would be humanly impossible.

Dino and Stephan, today you’re responding to a call from within you to go beyond eros-love and to go beyond philia-love. You’re choosing to reach for the heights of agape-love and we’re all here not only as witnesses to your response to that call, but also to pledge our love and support to assist you on your way. You may think that coming here today was your idea. I know differently. Let the gospel passage you’ve chosen speak to you.

“’It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This is my command: Love one another.’”

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