6 September 2019
Two employees of Caritas Armenia care for 80-year-old Marjik Harutyunyan. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Every year on 5 September the world observes the UN International Day of Charity. On 17 December 2012, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing an International Day of Charity to encourage people to volunteer services and engage in acts of philanthropy throughout the world. The UN chose 5 September as the date for the observance because it is also the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta), who died on 5 September 1997. That date now serves as her feast day on the Catholic calendar.
Charity is at the very core of the work of CNEWA. In the many countries where we work, we strive to help people who have been driven from their homes, are suffering from illnesses and crushing poverty. The list can be extended almost infinitely. The Welfare in Catholic Near East Welfare Association is almost identical to Charity in the International Day of Charity.
This day, then, serves as a good opportunity to reflect on what we mean when we talk about ”charity.”
Words are interesting things. They move through space and time. The ancient words of sacred texts of the Bible are alive and well in the languages of modern people. The inspired texts, originally in Hebrew, some Aramaic and Greek have been translated into literally thousands of languages, starting with Latin and Syriac in the earliest centuries of Christianity. As words move from place to place and century to century, they are not static. Words change. Sometimes they change radically and take on new meanings that may be almost the opposite of the original meaning. For example, in the time of Shakespeare the word ” ice” had the connotation of quibbling, silly and picky. It could also mean nice in the modern sense — but generally it was not a compliment. More often words take on or shed layers of meaning—the connotation is almost constantly evolving. In American English of the mid-20th century, for example, a turkey was a bird and that’s all it was. By the turn of the century a turkey — in addition to being a bird — became a naïve or unintelligent person.
Most of these changes, while interesting, are not earth-shaking. However, sometimes words from sacred texts change in ways that can be confusing. ”Love” is one of those words.
In Hebrew, the common word for love is built on the root 'h b. It — and its opposite, hate — mean pretty much what ”love” and ” hate” mean in modern English. However, they are also used to show a legal relation in a covenant. A vassal king “loves” his overlord and “hates” the enemies of his overlord. There is no sense of emotion or feeling. To “love” the overlord means to be faithful to the legal treaty — the covenant — between the two.
The Greek of the New Testament has three words for love, each with a slightly different connotation.
The first is erao. It has the connotation of passionate, physical love. Our English word ”erotic” is derived from Greek erao. To the best of my knowledge, this word does not appear in any form in the New Testament.
The two other words are phileo, which has the connotation of loving and befriending, and agapao, with its noun agape which is the love we find mostly in the New Testament. The word phileo in all its forms appears some 27 times, including three times with the connotation of “to kiss” (Matt 26:48; Mark 14:44; Luke 22:47)— all in relation to Judas Iscariot.
Agapao is clearly the preferred word in the New Testament, appearing some 256 times. When Paul speaks of “faith, hope and love” (1 Cor 13:13), he uses agape.
While some scholars have seen deep differences between the two words — with agapao being the more important of the two — that does not seem to be the case. While agapao is clearly the preferred word, phileo is nonetheless used to describe the love of the Father for the Son (John 5:20). More interestingly in the dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter in John 21:15-18 Jesus asks Peter twice “do you love me” (agapas me) and twice Peter replies, “You know I love you” (philo se). The third time Jesus asks “Do you love me” (phileis me), he uses Peter’s word for love. It is most unlikely John would have Jesus use a lesser word for love, merely because Peter used it.
Some problems do occur, however, in later translations. Latin, for example, does not have the same broad choice of words for “love” as Greek. In the Latin Vulgate, there is a tendency to translate agape as caritas. When the verb “to love” is translated into Latin, the preferred word is diligo.
Words change as they travel. The Latin caritas, used to translate the Greek words for love, comes into English as ”charity.” However, over the centuries charity has taken on the additional and perhaps now primary meaning of “acts of charity,” which the New Testament often refers to as “acts of mercy” (from the Greek eleeo, “to be compassionate”).
As a result, as least in English, charity becomes increasingly unmoored from love. It becomes at least theoretically (to say nothing of practically) possible to be charitable without being loving.
In point of fact, nothing could be further from the ideal preached by Jesus. Acts of charity are acts and signs of love. We must never allow “charity” to become a substitute for ”love.”
Which brings us back to our mission at CNEWA.
At CNEWA, so much of what we do may be considered a work of charity.
But that word reminds us: it is all, really, a work of love.