“Where Charity and Love Prevail.” This hymn text is derived from a Latin chant for Maundy Thursday, “Ubi caritas.” This hymn is assigned for today as the Gospel lesson from Luke 10 recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan, someone who showed love to his neighbor.
The focus of this hymn is “charity,” but let us clarify exactly what this means. The original Greek word is agapu, or “agape,” meaning a type of self-sacrificial love (the Greeks had no fewer than seven words for love.) For example, when St Paul writes in I Cor 13: 13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love,” the word for “love” is agape. When St Jerome translated the Bible into the vernacular Latin, he translated this word as caritas, which through all the major English translations of the Bible was interpreted as “charity;” in earlier English “charity” was understood more in the Greek sense—a sacrificial love. Only in recent centuries has the word taken on a meaning of “service” or the connotation of feeding the poor, acts of mercy, etc., of which all certainly exemplify love but which do not completely express the original Greek term any longer. Thus we find in modern Bibles caritas simply translated as “love,” leaving us to decipher what that means.
The first stanza tells us “Where charity and love prevail there God is ever found,” suggesting that where there is true service, mercy, and love, God is there as well. But the second phrase clarifies that we are “brought here together by Christ’s love,” not that our love earns us Christ’s favour or even presence. We must be careful to state that where there is love (as we moderns define it) there is not necessarily God, but where God is there is necessarily love. (From I John 4.) Wedding ministers enjoy using Paul’s words to convince the wedding couple that, since they feel what must be love, then they are somehow closer to God. This bunch of nonsense reverses the truth of the scenario—one cannot love in the agape sense if one does not know God. Yes, one can love according to human feelings without knowing God, but it is only through God, and more specifically Christ, that love is truly found. (From the beginning this text is Christocentric, defining who this God is, not leaving it for us to determine.)
The remainder of the hymn outlines ways in which we demonstrate love. We “forgive,” “love each other well,” and we ensure that “strife among us be unknown,” letting “all contention cease.” In reality, we are stained by sin and cannot achieve what the hymn suggests. As one of the three cardinal virtues in the Roman Church, caritas was seen as something which can only be given by God and not earned through human action (we Lutherans see our entire sanctification and justification process this way, but it is interesting that even the Catholics admit caritas must be given by God.) The hymn sets up an idyllic framework of virtue because even the anonymous, medieval text writer knew that he was incapable of keeping them. Such is the difficulty of exhibiting caritas or agape, but such is what Christ did perfectly.
The fifth stanza recalls Holy Communion and worship as we “recall that in our midst dwells Christ, His only Son; as members of His Body joined we are in Him made one.” This suggests Matthew 18: 20 where Christ defines worship as “two or three” being gathered together. It is not only that we are made members of the Body of Christ through the sacrament of baptism, we demonstrate fellowship with one another through Holy Communion—we (supposedly) know the importance of that which we eat and drink, and we are in fellowship with those who partake with us. (Which is basically negated with an open communion policy.)
Yet, although the blessings of worship and Holy Communion are only open to believers (those who do not eat and drink with understanding eat and drink condemnation to themselves [I Cor. 11: 28]), the final stanza reminds us of Christ’s will that all be invited to the heavenly banquet. In a truly evangelical fashion, the hymnwriter reminds us that “love excludes no race or clan that names the Saviour’s Name: His family embraces all whose Father is the same.” Denominations do not separate Christians from each other—false doctrines do. Those who have been baptized and for whom the free gift of God’s grace is a living reality are bound with the love of God into the Church Universal, believers past, present, and future.