One of the greater fears connected to our faith is that we grow stale, or become stale, in our spirituality, and remain in that dreaded spot for what seems like an eternity.
I’ve heard many people say that their prayer lives have become dry. Meaning, the satisfaction and joy we seek to experience in prayer becomes limp. Where it seems the joy and purpose of spending time with the Lord in prayer almost seems more like a chore and a Civil War battle. Or, if I dare say, a waste of time. Although even in dry times of prayer, I pray we know that no prayer is ever wasted or meaningless before God.
But becoming stagnant Christians is never a good place to be.
Certainly one way of shifting our faith into the dreaded neutral, or even reverse, is to convince ourselves that we have reached the pinnacle of perfection before God in this life. This dangerous approach to living our faith, which you would probably be surprised how many people actually believe this about themselves, is a recipe for cooking a bad-tasting meal with our faith. It tastes bad because thinking that perfection has been reached, and patting ourselves on the back till we get a sore arm and need back surgery from the thousands of pats, is the first cause for a lack of charity. And this way of thinking and carrying ourselves before God will cause us to become blind to the truly radical elements and teachings of Christ. Such as today’s readings.
It is true that the Scripture says “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” Beautiful words to strive for from Leviticus. And it’s also true that Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfection is the noblest of goals.
However, do any of us really reach the level of perfection and true holiness before God in this life? I would answer that question by saying, for many of us, yes. Believe it or not!
But there’s a catch here before any of us start celebrating too soon, thinking we have heaven all wrapped up before we expire from this world. And the catch is seen and heard in the words of Jesus in this Gospel. Do we live “an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth?” Or, have we rid ourselves of all the bitterness, hatred, anger, arrogance, and condescension toward all our brothers and sisters? Do we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors rather than hate those who irritate us, along with not speaking a caring word to God about those who try to crush us in some way? If we’ve arrived at a point in our lives where we have succeeded in the “eye for an eye” and the enemy categories, then you have traveled a long, long, very long way toward the perfection and holiness Jesus commands us to live.
If you can go out into this lovely, wonderful, beautifully created, snow-driven, God-forsaken world each day, and be rid of all the negative junk that seems to want to take over our hearts, and turn all that potential bad energy into the power of love and goodness, then you are well on your way to the glory and gift of heaven. You’re miles ahead of me! In fact, I may even forward your name to Pope Francis for possible canonization. That’s how much I admire those who reach that level of holiness. But honestly, that’s probably not most of us.
If that’s the truth, then how can Fr. Riley say that many of us, sinners though we are, reach being perfect and holy? I would venture to guess that many of us at times don’t feel holy or perfect. In fact, if we’re very honest, we probably feel far from it. And that’s one of the paths to holiness and perfection. Knowing that we are sinners in great need of God’s mercy.
But also, heeding the command of our Lord to be perfect and holy is not so much concerned with reaching the pinnacle of being holy and perfect and saying to ourselves, “I’ve made it, and I cannot get any holier!” as much as it is concerned about the road we travel. Being perfect and holy are God-like characteristics we embrace and become when we are moving forward in faith in Christ. It’s in the slow progression and advancement of conversion, of living out the awesome and challenging teachings of Jesus where others will recognize and admire our being holy and perfect. There’s much to be said for Christian effort. Are we trying to deepen our faith? Are we seeking to move forward through the power of God’s grace? Do we truly desire such holy advancement? If so, we are being holy and perfect.
When Jesus says in the Gospel, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” these words are regressive to the human heart and soul. To live these words is to walk toward Gehenna. However, since Jesus calls us home to heaven, he adds, “But I say to you.” “I say to you, kill them with kindness. They want your tunic? Give them your coat also! Do they want one mile from you? Give them two!” Jesus removes the regressive path that developed from the hardened hearts of the Israelites, the path to nowhere, and places us on the path of being perfect and holy.
Holiness is reached when we seek to please God, even though we remain sinners in need of confession. Holiness and being perfect does not mean to never sin. The saints were sinners. Just ask them! Being holy and perfect is realized in our actions that aim to please God through the lives of our brothers and sisters. And sometimes we fail, even when we don’t want to.
So when Jesus says to love your enemies rather than hate them, he’s redirecting our energy away from that which is unholy to what is holy. The one who will never be perfect or holy is the one who outright dismisses the words of our Lord, finding them to be too difficult or unrealistic. But to have a heart that is open to these difficult words, and really try to own them, even if we are not successful, is the Christian being holy and perfect.
Being holy and being perfect is in the striving. It’s the path our Lord leads us to. Not only for the sake of making the world a better and more peaceful place to live. But also, and maybe more so, for our internal peace and satisfaction.
One thing we are in need of being careful about at times with the Gospel reading is to get too negative and too down, and have the readings affect us in ways where we may walk away thinking, “Gee, that’s not what I thought being a follower of Jesus Christ is all about! I thought the Gospel was a message of peace and salvation! A message of hope and goodness! A message of honesty and mercy!”
Yet, here we have Jesus saying to the disciples that it’s better to cut off limbs and body parts rather than enter Gehenna with a body part that causes us to sin. In that case, we’d all be tearing our hearts out at one time or another due to concupiscence, that condition within us that can lead to some of the issues that Jesus addresses in this Gospel, from killing to adultery to false oaths and so forth.
But if we study and dig into this Gospel, which is a joy to do and really need to do, it’s not a Gospel of accusation and pure fear. Honestly, I’ve heard many times as a priest people talk about the Church they grew up in. Meaning, the whole of the Church and not a particular parish. Some comments are very good. And some are not so good, where they talk about a Church of pure fear and fire and brimstone and shaking our souls awake, otherwise Gehenna is the end result. The road to hell was more apparent, reachable, and available in those days. If you sneezed in the wrong direction, or if you looked at someone the wrong way, or if you doubted the words of Father in his homily as he spoke down to you, well then, make sure to bring an ice bucket with you for when you arrive at the fiery pit of your eternal destination. And a Gospel like this one played right into that manner of approaching, living out, and thinking about our faith.
Now, Jesus without question is both warning and teaching the disciples. He’s teaching them, and he’s teaching us, through his honest way of teaching, that he is the fulfillment of all that is good.
I look at this Gospel on the surface and we see warnings and “do not’s.” But underpinning the language and teachings of Christ, what we really have here is a call to perfection. A call to holiness. When Jesus says he came not to abolish the law and the prophets; that code of Godly conduct and those who presented the code from the Old Testament centuries, but he came rather to fulfill, he’s extending a personal invitation to holiness and Christian discipleship. He’s lifting us to a higher plane of living.
We can, if we wish to, sit on the surface of this Gospel, in its killing and adultery, its divorce and false oaths, and allow it to leave a bitter taste in our mouths and hearts. That is never the endgame with Christ. Conversely, we can, through our willingness and cooperation, allow the Lord to continue to form us and shape us away from any act or omission that blocks our way to God, and mold us into the good and holy persons he created from His eternal mind. That’s what we find at the heart of this tough Gospel. What lifts us up off the surface of Jesus’ words and lands us in a place where angels and saints reside, is our willingness to allow the Lord to lead our lives.
And, to practice the virtue of humility, admitting we are in need of both a Savior and a Reformer, with a capital “R.” Jesus lightens the load. He doesn’t burden us with his commandments as some would falsely accuse him of doing. Cooperating with the ways of Christ leads to freedom and peace. Christ isn’t the Great Burden; he’s the Great Healer, if only we trust that and work with that.
I find two virtues especially working at the heart of these readings; honesty and mercy.
I’ll never forget the story of a fellow UPS driver who told me one day how he caught his son taking something that didn’t belong to him. He saw him take it with his own eyes, said something to his son about the wrongness of it, and the son denied he took the something he shouldn’t have taken. The guy I worked with was absolutely incredulous when telling me the story that his son would lie so casually about something he saw him do, even telling him he saw him, and still lied about it! Well, this culture of lies has grabbed onto the hearts of many youth and adults today. It can only be countered by the honesty of Jesus, who is Truth itself. This is a big deal.
Jesus tells us the truth, not to condemn us, or so that we may cut off limbs. He tells us the truth; he is honest with us because he almost begs us to reach our human potential in the ways of holiness. His honesty is directed at our love for one another. Our honesty with one another, or lack thereof, reveals the depth of love we have for each other. Honesty is directly connected to our capacity to love.
And second, the readings speak of mercy. Even with the language of losing body parts and the language of Gehenna, we find God’s mercy at the heart of the message. A couple generations ago some priests may have stopped at the warnings. “Don’t kill; don’t commit adultery; don’t divorce and remarry; don’t speak falsely. And if you do, don’t forget your eternal ice bucket!” Then the Mass would go right into the Nicene Creed and we hope you have a nice day.
Everything Jesus touches on in this Gospel is meant to lead a person, not to Gehenna, but to the path of God’s mercy. Gehenna is cut off at the pass by our Lord’s mercy. And this drives the Devil nuts, which I personally happen to like very much, the fact that God’s mercy leads to Satan’s loss.
Honesty and mercy. This is ours at the heart of this week’s Gospel and readings. No need to be confused, saddened, or angry by Jesus’ words. Rather, rejoice, for your names are written in heaven.
Back to good deeds and works of mercy. This topic never seems to go away. Nor should it, of course.
In the contrast and comparison of salt and light, we taste and see that the Lord is good, as Psalm 34 expresses so eloquently. Taste that the Lord is good by eating his food and drinking his drink, and see that the Lord is good by letting your light shine before others.
As I was a little under the weather last Sunday, being ever grateful to Fr. Reidy for filling in for the Sunday Masses while my pillow and I had a day-long close conversation, the last thing I wanted while having a stomach issue was to taste anything. Food became my enemy for a short time. And for a Riley, that’s almost unheard of. Near impossible. When you have a stomach illness, just the thought of food, never mind the taste of food, does not jive with the mind and body.
I would think for most of us, thinking about food is a pretty normal thought. For example, I’m sure many of you are thinking about your dinner/breakfast/lunch right about now. And I hope I’m making you hungry by saying that, because looking forward to a nice dinner/breakfast/lunch is good anticipation. Whether at home or eating out, there’s nothing like a delicious sit-down meal to begin/end/continue the day.
Now, when Jesus tells his disciples that we are the salt of the earth, I take that to mean, among other things, that we are the servants of the earth. Salt provides a great service to food in that it improves its taste and preserves its longevity. It’s our solemn responsibility to improve the good taste of God’s created order and to preserve its longevity by respecting the goods of the earth. To use and not abuse. But much more so by preserving and respecting the heart and soul of God’s creation; the human person. From conception to natural death.
We all enjoy being waited on. As I wrote in my column in this week’s bulletin, we all enjoy being waited on, and we appreciate good service at a good restaurant, or even a bad one. And we deserve to be waited on at times. It’s good to witness good service when we’re on the receiving end of it. Parents do this every day.
But being the salt of the earth is an image of pure service. In order for us followers of Jesus to taste good to others; in order to evangelize effectively and with success; in order to be the hands and feet and the voices of Christ in the world, we are to be servants.
I was just reading a few days ago the words of Pope Francis saying that “we need to be a Church that goes out into the streets.” What the Holy Father is repeating are the words of Isaiah in today’s reading; “Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and homeless; clothe the naked when you see them; and do not turn your back on your own.” These are the “meals” that taste delicious to the world, despite the many roadblocks a secular world tries to impose on our Christian flavor and responsibility. We must continue to be – and improve at being – the salt of the earth. Not for our own benefit, for God will care for us. But for the needed benefit of those whose lives are so wonderfully touched by the taste of Jesus Christ in our expressions of faith. When we taste good to those who are impoverished, it’s because the Lord has found us worthy to taste good to our brothers and sisters.
And just as salt, if it were to lose its taste, it would no longer serve the purpose of its existence, or if a cornfield doesn’t grow corn, or if a tomato plant doesn’t produce tomatoes, or if a major snowstorm doesn’t produce a huge plowing bill for the Pastor of Immaculate Conception, the same goes for light.
I find it almost beyond comprehension and acceptance what Jesus calls us here. He says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” And I’m inclined to say back to Jesus, “No, Lord, I don’t need that kind of pressure. You are the Light of the world, not us! Please don’t tell me something I’m not in my incredible weakness!”
My instinct is to pull back and allow Jesus to be the Light of the world on his own. But this is not how it has worked since God raised His Son from the dead, ascended into heaven, interceding on our behalf. Yes, we are the light of the world. This is how our Lord loves us and builds up his kingdom on earth, because earth and our lives are the combination testing ground for what God has prepared in the eternal stage of life.
As the great writer of the 19th century, English Cardinal and convert John Henry Newman wrote, “If you don’t like heaven here, you’re not going to like it there either.” This life is the testing ground for our light. Are we willing to humbly accept what Jesus so graciously calls us; the light of the world?
Taste and see that the Lord is good. So good, that even in our human weakness, he challenges us to bring forth the divine spark within us.
It’s good that we get to celebrate the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple on a Sunday this year. Normally, whatever day of the week this feast falls on is the day it is celebrated. But the Church allows this feast day of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple to override, if you will, the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
We still celebrate the resurrection of our Lord from the grave, as we do every Sunday, for all Sundays outside of Easter Sunday are celebrations of what happened on Easter Sunday. But today we do so with a view of the events taking place 40 days after the birth of Christ inside the holiest place in all of Israel, the Temple of the Lord.
So, let’s take a walk into the inner sanctuary of the Temple to listen in and witness a few of these movements and spoken words, and allow them to still speak to us on our personal and communal journey of salvation. A journey where one day we also will be presented to our loving and merciful God who we hope, pray, and trust will embrace us for fulfilling and living up to His expectations in our lives.
With today being Super Bowl Sunday, I break this down into four connecting quarters.
First (quarter), Mary and Joseph fulfilling the precepts of the Law and their responsibility as parents by presenting Jesus to the religious tribe of their Jewish faith. The actual presentation begins for Jesus one lifelong action (about 33 years) and commitment to serving his Father in heaven. As we know, Jesus does not stray from his purpose. Rather, he fulfills to the fullest extent the message of repentance and salvation for all.
This beginning process is in fact like the first quarter of our lives. It is the very first religious ceremony in Jesus’ life. This ceremony in the Temple is now mirrored by our own Baptism. Or, as I said a few weeks ago, our Baptism was our first act of true worship. Our Baptism began a lifelong commitment to serving God. Our presentation began a process that culminates in heaven, but involves countless acts of faith during our short time here on earth. The presentation, our presentation, opened wide the door to serving the Lord and doing His will, not ours. “Your will be done, Lord.” Presentation is the first religious act of service.
Which leads to the second part (quarter), which is the image of Simeon embracing the child Jesus. The Gospel says that Simeon took Jesus “into his arms and blessed God” for the gift of this child. This spiritual image of the two becoming one is an image that unites our will to God’s will. We have become one with the Lord after the initial presentation, after our Baptism, inviting us to grow in wisdom, age, and grace, striving to make this a daily act in our lives.
We don’t take Jesus for granted. Nor do we take our presentation, our Baptism, for granted. Every day is a day for re-committing ourselves to the Lord, and doing our best to put forth and live out the great teachings of our faith that Christ the Teacher has taught us. The image of embracing Jesus, of taking him into our arms, is more than just momentary babysitting. It has eternal effects. Our embracing Jesus now, and re-committing ourselves to his service daily, is reversed at the end when the Lord will embrace us and wait on us at the Banquet of Life.
Third (quarter). The embracing of our Lord leads to the next natural step of amazement. “The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him.” They haven’t seen anything yet! From presentation, to embracing, to amazement at the words defining this child’s future. Very simply, when oneness with the Lord is our desire, we do some pretty amazing things. Others may or may not say amazing things about us, and in the end human praise is totally irrelevant, but the amazing results of our Christian discipleship will be recorded by the many pens and pencils in heaven.
For us to be amazing for the Lord through our Baptism and daily commitment to Jesus is to practice the virtues. Most notably the virtues of love, mercy, generosity, and humility. The reason that Simeon and others can say amazing things about this child at 40 days old is because the Spirit has revealed to them that this child is the perfection of all virtues. Once you’ve seen the best example of humanity, when you hold and look perfection in the eyes, we can say like Simeon, “Master, you may let your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Just like the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004, that amazing, unexpected feat completed a lifetime for thousands of people.
We have the capacity to do amazing things for the Lord. The Spirit provides what is needed.
And fourth (quarter), this all leads to my favorite person involved in the Presentation of the Lord; Anna the Prophetess. Why? Because she never left the Temple. I hope they had a Ladies Room in the Temple. Anna worshipped day and night for years on end with fasting and prayer. A Saint among saints.
In our Baptism that begins our journey of holding Jesus in our arms so we can go forth and do amazing things, what undergirds our relationship with God is to never leave the Temple. This is a serious problem today where so many have left the Temple. So many good people who mistakenly see the Church as a human institution only, rather than being divinely established and divinely upheld, Spirit-driven and Spirit-maintained.
To do amazing things, we are to be in the Body of Christ. To get away from the Temple, or to leave the Temple for any one of 10,000 reasons, places a heavy foot on the neck of our amazement. In the Temple, we breathe the breath of Life, with all of her human faults, and with all of her Divine perfections.
So, the Presentation of our Lord in a sense is like the Super Bowl of life’s journey. What begins in the Presentation and in Baptism continues forever, thanks be to God who gives us the power and grace to move forward.