Mar 1, 2019
When I was a kid, I remember hearing about “Eskimo kisses.” I suspect most readers have heard of that term. My understanding was that an Eskimo kiss was the action of rubbing your nose with the nose of someone else.
|Father Richard Kunst
Now, I never gave any thought as to whether that was really true or not; do indigenous people in the northern part of the northern hemisphere really kiss by rubbing their noses together? I have to say, I have my doubts, but who knows. It would seem to me to be a very unfulfilling way to show and receive affection.
Another thing I remember hearing about our neighbors to the way, way north, is that they had a whole bunch of words for snow, like 50 of them. Now that makes sense to me. After all, one of their greatest realities in life is snow, so I can imagine that they have different words to explain wet snow, light snow, sticky snow, fluffy snow, and the list could go on 50 times! “Eskimo kisses” I am not sure of, but a lot of different words for snow certainly makes sense.
What might be true of the Eskimo language certainly is not true of ours. What is the biggest reality to humans as a whole? Even to the Eskimos the biggest reality in life is in fact not snow but love.
It does not take much thought to realize that this is true. We all want to be loved, and if our heart is not made out of hardened snow, we all love someone. Ninety-nine percent of all songs of any genre are about love. Our movies and television shows all have aspects of love included in the storyline. Commercials get us to buy things for the ones that we love, or to help protect what we love.
We humans were created for love. It is truly the greatest reality of our existence, and yet we have a problem in that we only have one word to express this most important of realities in English. Stop and think of how many things we use that little word for: I love Johnny Cash, I really do, but I love my mom, dad, bacon, and God too. See where I am going with this?
This can pose a problem in how we understand the scriptures. The topic of love is everywhere in the Bible, but the three short letters of John in the back of the Bible stand out in their focus on this little word. Per word, I am sure the word “love” is used more in those short texts than in any other part of the inspired word. Here is one short example from the First Letter of John: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God. The man without love has known nothing of God, for God is love” (4:7-8). Clearly, the sort of love St. John is writing about is our love of God, who is the very definition of love.
Perhaps the most widely misunderstood use of the word “love” in the Bible comes from my least favorite wedding reading. We have all heard it many times, so much so that it has unfortunately become a cliche, though it is an incredibly beautiful reading. It is that famous passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians, when Paul says “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong …. Love is patient, love is kind ….”
It is important to know that St. Paul is not talking about romantic love. Not even close! He is talking about how we treat people who we might not even know or like. It has more to do with the person at work who you just can’t stand than it has to do with a romantic love interest! When young couples come to me for marriage prep, I practically ban that reading from their options to choose from, because it’s not what they think it is. (If they do pick that reading, I do take the opportunity to explain it to them.)
When the Bible was written long, long ago, much of it was in a language that today we call biblical Greek. In this ancient language there were three different words for love to express different realities of the word. These different words for love may be the topic of a future column, but suffice it to say, while it is a far cry from the supposed 50 words for “snow” in Eskimo language, it still brought more clarity to the real meaning of love.
Our takeaway from all of this is to not assume that every time the word “love” is written in the Bible it is referencing romantic love. Rather, it is referencing a much more demanding form of love.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]