Love: A Many-Splendored Mystery

The season of “love” is upon us, filling up the airwaves and TV spots with reminders to buy candy, roses, even luxury cars. To marketers, it seems, love is a commodity.

To true lovers, however, it is a mystery.

St. Paul’s doctrine of human love is certainly mysterious — enigmatic, actually — to those for whom love is a commodity. But it’s still more than that. It’s a mystery in the traditional sense of the term. In the Greek of the New Testament, mysterion is equivalent to the English word sacrament. It is an outward, material sign that points to an inward, spiritual reality.

There are people, of course, who dismiss St. Paul’s notions of love as outdated, but I think he knew our world, and knew it, perhaps, better than we do.

In St. Paul’s lifetime, Roman society was prosperous and at peace. People wanted to enjoy their leisure, without the impediment of a spouse or children. Caesar Augustus feared that this would create a demographic and economic crisis for the empire, so he enacted legislation that penalized those who chose not to marry and taxed and fined those who intentionally rendered their sex lives sterile. It didn’t work. People weighed the cost of the fines against the pleasures of an unmoored lifestyle, and they decided they could afford it.

Though young people still held on to vestiges of ancient courtship customs, the culture was all about “hooking up” — casual encounters fueled by wine. (The scene is vividly portrayed by St. Paul Center senior fellow Father Michael Giesler in his novel Junia.)

In such a climate, it’s no wonder many people began to disdain and even condemn marriage. Some did it because they wanted free love instead. Others did it because they despaired of the possibility of human love.

Yet St. Paul would have none of it. He reserved his strongest insults for those who would speak against human love: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage” (1 Tim 4:1-3).

Demons and liars, with seared consciences! What is it about the degradation of human love that provokes such righteous anger in our Apostle?

He’s furious because he sees people desecrating a sacrament. In his extended discussion of marriage in Ephesians 5, St. Paul evokes the pristine goodness of the relationship between Adam and Eve in Eden. He praises the love of spouses for one another. And he concludes by saying that “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32).

Marriage that is complementary, monogamous, faithful, mutually self-giving is something more than domestic bliss. It is a mystery, a sacrament of something still greater: God’s love affair with his bride, the Church.

That sacramentality is the key to everything else St. Paul has to say about human love. It is the reason he condemns adultery and polyandry (Rom 5:3), divorce (1 Cor 7:10), homosexual acts (Rom 1:26-27).

Against all these abuses of human potential, he dared to preach true love, which is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, and does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:4-8).

This was diametrically opposed to the Greco-Roman way of “love,” which was characteristically impatient and unkind, prone to rape and a gateway to abortion and infanticide.

St. Paul was countercultural, then and now.

p>So are you and I. That’s why I’m grateful to you for all you do to help the work of the St. Paul Center — your prayers, your words of encouragement, and your contributions. St. Paul dared to speak out against that long-ago culture’s false ideas about love. And his notions prevailed! He can do it again, with God’s help and yours and mine.