Agape

“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you should in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives.” –Colossians 3:18-19

 

These words are the preacher’s worst nightmare—even in writing this post, I easily spent ten minutes trying to soften their blow with a pleasing introduction to make sure people weren’t turned off before giving me a chance to speak. But I finally gave in—for, properly understood, these words need not scare us.

 

What do I mean? In my Biblical Interpretation class a few weeks ago, we happened upon a discussion of these words, focusing particularly upon the injunction: “Husbands, love your wives.” St. Paul originally wrote this letter in Greek, and so our professor mentioned that the word used here for “love” is agape. Now, many of us have heard that agape is the sort of love God has for us, a purely selfless love. This is certainly true, but there is more to this use of the word agape, as our professor highlighted: the Greeks had four words for love, of which I will focus on three: agape, philia, and eros. The use of these different words for love in Greek was strongly marked by social status; thus,

 

Agape is the sort of love a social inferior has for a social superior—perhaps we would think of this as “marrying up.”

 

Philia is the sort of love had between two social equals—thus, friendship.

 

Eros is the sort of love had by a social superior for a social inferior—like our “marrying down.”

 

Now, in the culture Paul inhabited, the convention was for husbands to eros their wives—they couldn’t even truly be friends with their wives (philia) because they were socially inferior by virtue of their gender. So Paul’s call to husbands is actually quite radical—in many ways, more radical than the call to wives! He wants husbands to love their wives not even as social equals (friends), but as social superiors, like a servant would love their master!

 

Beautiful, right? Well, it gets better! Now, think back to what we said about how agape is generally associated with the love God has for us—not only is this love selfless, but God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, Being itself, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the One who needs nothing, who rightly deserves all praise, service, and adoration (cf. Revelation 5:12, among many others), loves us as though we were superior to Him!!! For Christ, “though he was in the form of God…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). God has desired to serve us—and of course, what image could be more fitting than the one the Church offers on Holy Thursday: the washing of the disciples’ feet.

 

For many years, I wondered why the Church chose the Gospel it does for Holy Thursday (John 13:1-15)—it just didn’t make sense! I mean, this was the Last Supper we were celebrating, shouldn’t we be reading about the institution of the Eucharist!? Why choose John, who devotes a previous chapter of his Gospel to the Eucharist (John 6) but does not mention it during the Last Supper, when the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all have the institution narrative? No doubt among other reasons, because John’s Gospel thus encapsulates all that occurs on Holy Thursday: the giving of the New Commandment, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34); the institution of Holy Orders; and the institution of the Eucharist. All of these are expressions of love, the sort of love Christ has for us: agape, a love that serves the other. Thus, Christ gives us “a model to follow” in stooping to clean the feet of his disciples, and shows us what agape love means, what it means for God to love humanity, and what it means for us to love God and neighbor:

 

“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” –John 13:12-14.