In my last column I spoke about the many ways our ancient ancestors spoke of love.
We use that one little word to describe all our affections. From sausage pizza to a lifelong spouse, from California wines to almighty God, we love what we love. One word fits all.
The Greeks, on the other hand, had four words just to describe human. Storge was the kind of affection we have for companions and classmates. Philia is the love we share with close friends. Eros denotes the attraction of romantic love. And Agape is the highest form of love: the unconditional, sacrificial, self-giving love of charity.
We miss a lot because we don’t make such fine distinctions. We probably miss a lot in life. We certainly miss something when we read the Bible. Consider this familiar passage from the last chapter of St. John’s Gospel. You’ve heard it many times at Mass:
“Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
“He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
“He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
It’s a curious exchange because Jesus seems to ask the same question three times, and Peter seems to give the same answer three times. But there are subtle variations in the questions and answers. There’s a drama going on in the exchange, and we miss it when we’re unaware of the different kinds of love.
The notes in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible explain what’s going on:
“In his first two questions, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with ‘willing love’ (Gk. agapa≈ç), but in the third question he asks if Peter loves him with merely ‘friendly affection’ (Gk. phile≈ç), which is the word Peter uses in all three of his responses. … Jesus, desirous of a complete and heroic love from Peter, was willing by the end of the conversation to settle for his friendship.”
Did you catch how merciful Jesus is? He has already died for Peter! Now risen, he has forgiven Peter’s threefold denial. His love for Peter is infinite. He gives Peter a chance to love him right back with the same intensity.
Peter, however, is keenly aware of his own shortcomings. He can’t bring himself to promise heroic love. Instead he repeatedly promises Jesus philia, friendship.
And Jesus indicates that he is willing to meet Peter there! What’s more, Jesus predicts that Peter will one day indeed possess the power to love heroically. In the verses immediately afterward, our Lord foretells that Peter will die as a martyr, a witness to the love of Jesus.
But it is enough right now for Peter to “follow” Jesus.
What if Jesus were to ask you and me the same question? How would we answer? Are we ready, right now, to give up everything and die as martyrs — just as Jesus did, and just as Peter did?
Maybe not. But Jesus assures us that, if we follow him, we will grow in our capacity to love. We’ll be able to love as he loves, with a divine power that will be his gift to us.
This is what we learn when we’re open to the nuances of loving taught to us by the Apostles — who learned how to love from Jesus.