I’m sending this column as my Valentine.
The season of “love” is upon us, filling the airwaves with reminders to buy candy, roses, even luxury cars. To marketers, 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. The New Testament word “mysterion” is often translated to English as “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There are people, of course, who dismiss St. Paul’s notions of love as outdated, but I think he knew our world better than we do.
In his 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 casual sexual encounters fueled by wine. In such a climate, many people began to disdain and even condemn marriage. Some despaired of the possibility of human love.
Yet St. Paul would have none of that. He wrote: “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 Timothy 4:1–3).
That’s strong language! What is it about the degradation of human love that provoked such righteous anger in the apostle?
He’s furious because he sees people desecrating a sacrament. In his 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” (Ephesians 5:32).
Marriage that is complementary, monogamous, faithful, and mutually self-giving is something more than domestic bliss. It is 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 (Romans 5:3), divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10), and homosexual acts (Romans 1:26–27).
Against all these abuses of human potential, he dared to preach true love, which is patient and kind and does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 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, as he is now.