In the great treatise on Love of 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul sets forth a symphony of sorts in three movements, wherein he describes the Theological Virtue of Love. Over the past two days we looked at the first two movements:

Movement I – The PRIMACY and PREREQUISITE of Love

Movement II – The PORTRAIT and POWER of Love

today we conclude with

Movement III – The PERFECTION and PERMANENCE of Love

The text says,

Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.

For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:8-13)

The literary structure of this final movement is a “sandwich” of sorts, as I have tried to illustrate by the indentations above. The basic sandwich is this:

  1. Permanence – Verse 8
  2. Perfection – Verses 9-12
  3. Permanence  – Verse 13

Let us first consider the Perfection of Love. In English we tend to think of perfection more in terms of excellence. For example we might speak of moral excellence (being perfect), physical excellence (perfect beauty) or performative excellence (giving a perfect performance). But as is often the case in Scripture St. Paul and the Holy Spirit have in mind here more of perfection as completion.

The Greek word translated here as “perfect” is τέλειον (teleion). The Greek word téleios is and adjective derived from télos, which refers to a completed goal, something which is mature and has gone through the necessary stages to reach the end or goal. Hence τέλειος, α, ον (téleios, a, on) refers to something that is mature in all its parts, full grown or complete.

And this much is clear from what St. Paul describes here. Our ultimate destination is the completeness, the wholeness, the perfection that Love effects. And thus, things related to our Faith such as knowledge and prophecy, and what is related to Hope, namely “vision” are now incomplete, (i.e. imperfect). But Love, will perfect Faith and Hope when it comes in all its  fulness. This is because Love contains what Faith and Hope point to and long for.

God is Love and He is what and Who our Faith, through knowledge and prophesy, assures us of, and what and Who our Hope confidently expects to see.

Thus we learn how Love Himself perfects, that is completes, Faith and Hope. When we are fully swept up into the Love of God, fully united to the Love which God is, our knowledge will be no longer partial, our vision no longer experienced darkly as in a distorted mirror. We shall then “know fully” and see clearly.

Finally let us consider the Permanence of Love - St. Paul says that Love never fails. He qualifies to a great extent the outworking of Faith and Hope (for knowledge, prophecy and vision all need to be perfected). And Love also needs to be perfected in us, but is the greatest because it perfects and completes Faith and Hope, and they are subsumed in Love.

To explain this, consider how, in a sense, Faith and Hope will pass away. Let us say that I believe my book is at home on my coffee table. Thus I have faith that it is there. But when I go finally do go home and see it there on the table, I do not need faith any longer for faith is about things that are unseen (cf Heb 11:1).

Consider too how hope passes away with vision. Let us say that I not only believe my book is on my coffee table back at home but I also hope, that is I am confidently expectant that it will be there when I arrive. And sure enough, there it is! But I no longer need hope, for now I see it! And, as St. Paul says elsewhere, For who hopes for what he sees? (Romans 8:24)

And thus, in a sense Faith and Hope will go away, but Love will never fail or fall away. Perhaps it is better to say that Faith and Hope have now been fulfilled than to say they have utterly gone away. For St. Paul does say that Faith, Hope and Love, “remain.” But Faith and Hope “remain” only in the sense that they have been fulfilled by Love. Love however, is still operative as Love.

To illustrate this consider a young man on his way to the train station to meet his beloved fiance. He goes to the station with an intense love and longing to see her at last. He also goes there with faith, knowing and trusting that her train will arrive as the schedule says at 10:00 PM. He also goes there with hope, confidently expecting to see her at the appointed time. At long last she steps off the train and they embrace. Love brought him there, as did faith and hope. But now only love remains. Faith and hope are no longer necessary or operative, for their purpose is fulfilled and are swept up in love. But Love goes on, Love alone remains.

Yes, the greatest of these is Love.

And thus ends the great treatise, the great sonata, of St. Paul on Love in three movements. There a kind of Andante con moto in Movement 1 laying out the need for Love to inform and perfect every excellence. And second movement that is Allegro con brio or presto with its rapid, litany-like recital of the effects and moves of Love. And there is the Adagio con amore of the final movement, slower but rhapsodic as it points to the sky and the serene Love that waits for us in heaven, will all our longings fulfilled and complete.

3 Responses

  1. linda says:

    Thank you for this reflection. I offer another image of perfection and permanence – the faithful spouse or child caring for a loved one with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. All external signs of “excellence” have long since passed away. Only love remains. I counsel the families daily and am amazed and inspired.

  2. Genevieve Connor says:

    Beautifully put and clearly treated, THANK YOU

  3. Anna Marie Walker says:

    These three discussions on love were awesome. I had never heard it explained like this. Thank you Msgr. I have printed them and will use them as lenten meditations.

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