Agape: The Cornerstone of Love

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:22-23)

Last time, we embarked on a series of reflections about the many kinds of love that characterize our lives and our relationships. Our journey centers on the circle of love. In part one, we will look at Agape and explore how Christ and His unconditional, sacrificial agape is the cornerstone upon which the entire edifice of love is built.

Love is a Building

At the head of the circle of love is agape, the unconditional love for both God and neighbor. Agape is unconditional, constructive, and self-sacrificial. It holds the whole structure of our lives and our loves together. It never fails, even when unrequited. This love is founded on the commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ says that on these two commandments “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). 

Every commandment is recapitulated in the love of neighbor (Rom. 13:9), and all things are recapitulated in Christ (Eph. 1:10). The word for “recapitulation” (summary, fulfillment), which sounds so abstract in English, comes to life in the original Greek: anakephalaiosis is rooted in the Greek word for “head” (kephale), as in the “head of the body” or the “chapter heading” of a book. In classical architecture, the “head of the corner” or “cornerstone” is the chief stone that forms the foundation and guides the entire building process from square one. We encounter a cornerstone in one of the most frequently quoted prophecies in the New Testament: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (Ps. 118:22-23). Christ refers to Himself as this stone, and we can also see it as an image of His agape.

This building metaphor helps us to clear a common misconception: agape is not a feeling or emotion, but rather a state of being. While feelings fade and emotions ebb and flow, this love is stable and secure: it “abides”, it “never falls” and it “builds up.” Even when we fall short of love, Christ gives us space and time to grow into the unconditional love that He teaches. We cannot build the edifice of love on shaky ground. Although the “builders” of the Psalm reject Christ the Cornerstone, He and His unconditional love are the only sound foundation we can build upon. 

Agape as Unconditional Love

There are two kinds of unconditional love of neighbor: 1) to love everyone, no matter who they are, and 2) to love someone, no matter what they do.

The first kind of unconditional love, the love of all people, is comprehensive, but it is not abstract. That is why the word ‘neighbor’ is used. Plesion, the Greek word for neighbor, indicates any person you encounter. In answer to the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Christ gives an instance of love that is not between friends or kinsmen, but rather of a Good Samaritan who helps a Jewish man left beaten and mugged on the side of the road (Lk. 10:25-37). Incidentally, the concrete example of the Good Samaritan is expressed as philoxenia, ‘love for the stranger’ and hospitality. The Samaritans and Jews, although neighbors, had become foreigners and strangers to each other. When the Good Samaritan finds the Jewish man who was robbed, he cares for him despite their mutual estrangement. Agape has no favoritism, nor is it limited to personal ties and kindred.

There is something concrete about the command to love our ‘neighbor’. There can be a danger in striving for a love that is too idealized. As one of Dostoevsky’s characters insightfully puts it, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love people in particular.” (The Brothers Karamazov Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, 57)

 We often construct false images of others, holding them to unrealistic standards, and subsequently are easily disappointed. But Jesus reorients us by showing how our ‘neighbor’ is anyone we encounter on life’s road. He directs our love towards every person we happen upon, even towards those who have fallen from grace and those who injure us.

The unconditional love of agape does not just mean showing love to everybody, but having unchanging love toward somebody regardless of their actions. This second type of unconditional love is exemplified in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Family life gives us ample opportunities to put this unconditional love into practice, and the parable illustrates it through an example of family love (storge). Despite squandering his inheritance, the son is welcomed back into his father’s loving arms. The father respects his son’s freedom to leave, but he also preserves a home well-ordered for his son’s restoration. When he saw his son returning in the distance, he “felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him,” telling his servants to clothe him in the finest robe, to put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet (Lk 15:20-22).

One feature we see in both of these parables is the provision of shelter. St Paul beautifully sums up the activity of agape as follows: “love builds up” (1 Co. 8:1). In doing so it generously provides a space for others, while also allowing them the freedom to accept or reject the invitation. We may note how the philoxenia of the Good Samaritan shares many similarities with the storge of the loving father. While so much of home life is based on our universal need for care, clothing, and protection, philoxenia is the natural extension of these necessities to people other than our own relatives. Thus, the Good Samaritan “felt compassion” for the wounded man, “bound his wounds in cloth,” and “brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Lk. 10:33-34). In both cases, they feel compassion and this leads to action, to works of love that shelter and “build up”. Their love is accomodating and constructive. If love is a building, then the tenderness of storge and the openhearted offering of hospitality serve as its open entranceway.


Drawn up on High by the Cross

In addition to illustrating agape with these compelling parables, Christ demonstrates this love in His own person. The greatest symbol of His unconditional love is the Cross. According to St Ignatius of Antioch, we are “stones of the temple of the Father, prepared for the building of God the Father, and drawn up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the Cross.” It is from the Cross that Christ grants us the fullest revelation of agape. In the face of His enemies, He cries out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). He is the “stone that the builders rejected,” but has “become the head of the corner”. So then, Christ is both “the head of the corner” which holds the whole structure together, and the “head of the body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:18). One of the aspects of His love that is so “marvelous in our eyes” is that even though His love is unreciprocated – He is crucified by man – He transforms this rejection into salvation. His death becomes the source of life. Such is the power of His love. All who love in Christ, even if their love is spurned, do not love in vain. Though this love is costly, it is crowned with the hope of resurrection. 

Christ is betrayed and crucified, but from the Cross He consecrates a space for reconciliation and forgiveness: the Church. It is there that we especially dedicate ourselves to the love of God, to practicing the “first and great commandment” which overflows into the second commandment, the love of neighbor, “which is like it” (Mt. 22:38-39). One reason the Church’s liturgical and ascetical life is filled with prayers, services, and disciplines is because these help us to grow accustomed to the state of being that leads to actions of love. An orientation of worship and devotion to God leads to a spirit of service to others. This also helps to explain why the Church has a strong sense of order and structure. It preserves itself as a sanctuary so that when wandering souls come around again, they will have solid ground to return to.

Agape is the salt that preserves all the other loves; it is the God-given love that seals and secures the entire building. Simultaneously, the other loves provide occasions and venues for agape. The hearth of the home, the workplace, even the intellectually rigorous and free campus of a university: all of these can become fertile ground for cultivating unconditional love. Through the forgiveness afforded by agape, the relationships in our lives are restored and the old ruins of past mistakes and failures are mended. To “forgive” in Greek, synchoro, means to “allow space for the other” or to “share space” with them; it is a humbling act that makes room for freedom, reconciliation, and a deeper communion with God and amongst ourselves. St Paul recapitulates these truths in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15). 

In the next part of Words of Love, we will continue our journey through the circle of love. See you in two week for the next word of love. 

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