Today’s gospel prophesies the fulfillment of the epistle. When Jesus said, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written in the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished,” he was describing the ultimate act of love.
Charity as a Theological Virtue
Both our collect and epistle talk about the theological virtue of charity, which modern Bibles translate as love. The Greek word being translated in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” When the early church translated the Greek into Latin, it became “caritas.” When the Latin was first translated into English, it became “charity.” Because the word charity had a formal meaning as a “theological virtue,” the King James translators used charity for the first English translation of 1 Corinthians 13.
There is a case to be made for maintaining the use of the word charity. The three virtues mentioned at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope and charity, are called the “Theological Virtues.” This is to distinguish them from the natural or cardinal virtues of classical thought. The “Cardinal Virtues” are justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. The idea is that these have a “natural” form. By proper training, a non-believer might be just, prudent, temperate and courageous. To be sure, faith and the gift of the Spirit will raise these virtues to a higher form, just as faith and the gift of the Spirit draw all natural endowments into the service of the kingdom. However, they exist apart from faith.
Conversely, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity can only be possessed as a gift from God. Thus, they are called “infused” virtues. They are given by God to the faithful in baptism, and they are developed in the life of prayer by God’s grace. This is why it is right to distinguish the theological virtue of charity from the ordinary use of the world love. In his book, Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes three kinds of natural love. There is sexual and brotherly love, and there is a kind of natural, familial affection. All can experience these. But it is not possible to have agape-caritas-charity except as a gift from God.
Charity vs. mere love
This becomes clear as we read 1 Corinthians 13. It tells us that agape-love is all sorts of things that we do not naturally do or possess. Love is patient, kind and longsuffering; it does not seek its own good and it never fails. Human love, in contrast, is not a disinterested concern for the good of the other—and it fails all the time. Because natural love is infected by the fall, the desire for the good of the other is always leavened by our own needs and desires.
We are able to love with agape/charity only after we experience this kind of love from God. In relationship with God, we experience love in way that we cannot experience love anywhere else. God first convicts us of our sin, then he forgives us, then he cleanses and heals us, then he gives us strength to live in a new way. God brings his order and beauty of our chaos, causing all things to work together for good in our lives. We experience this pattern repeatedly through the life of prayer.
No human counselor or agent can love us in this way. No human agent can forgive us—for only Christ has the power to forgive. No human agent can cleanse us—for only the Spirit can wash away sins. No human agent can give us the strength to overcome our sins. Apart from grace we are stuck. And no human agent can exercise a sovereign and benevolent control over our lives. Agape/charity is known only as a gift from God.
When I say that no human agent can do these things, I mean no human agent acting apart from God’s grace. However, the members of Christ’s body, whom Christ has gifted to be agents of his grace, can love as Christ loves using the particular gifts Christ has given us. However, our use of spiritual gifts is dependent upon our own ongoing experience of Trinitarian love. We can only give to others what we have and know ourselves.
Thus, the right use of spiritual gifts depends upon our own experience and possession of agape or charity. As the epistle says,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing (1Coritnians 13:1-3).
It is possible to exercise all manner of spiritual gifts, perform extreme acts of charity and even die as a martyr in ways that render the actions worthless in the eyes of God. Agape or charity is the thing that distinguishes genuine good works from mere religious activity. The central question is not, what are you doing? The central question is, why are you doing it?
Lent and charity
When we understand that all our doings without charity are nothing worth, we realize that Lent is a season of both danger and opportunity. It is a season of danger if we keep the fast by observing a list of rules on a merely human level. But it is a season of opportunity to grow in agape or charity. We can go only up to Jerusalem with Jesus if we observe the fast with the goal of growing in the love that comes from God.
Our appetites get in the way or our ability to love. Thus our fast must aim to bring our appetites under the control of the Holy Spirit so that we may love more. Out motives taint our giving. So in Lent, we not only give more. We also ask ourselves, why are giving? Do I give because I want attention or recognition? Do I give because I want something back? Lent is a time to pray for God to purify our motives so that we learn to give the way God gives. Our lack of prayerfulness leaves us without the power to love. Thus, Lent begins with a renewed commitment to prayer. As Jesus said, “He who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
We start by praying for an increase in agape or charity, the love that comes from God:
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.