Becoming Holy Like God Through the Perfection of Love for God and the Needy, First Monday of Lent, February 23, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Monday of the First Week of Lent
February 23, 2015
Lev 19:1-2.11-18, Ps 19, Mt 25:31-46

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • On the last two Lenten weekdays, Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday, the Church had us ponder what God wants from our fasting. He wants us to fast for the things for which he hungers. He wants us to share his hunger. Through the Prophet Isaiah he described various of the things for which he hungers. Today he continues to describe those hunger pains. He begins with the Code of Holiness in the Book of Leviticus. He calls us to “be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” To be holy is to share God’s deepest hungers and desires, for us and for others. Jesus said in the Beatitudes that we’re blessed when we “hunger and thirst for holiness.” To be holy is to be perfect as our Father is perfect. And since God is love, the perfection for which God hungers in us is the perfection of charity. Today he describes for us in two moments the path to that charity.
  • In Leviticus he continues the Old Testament emphasis on “negative commandments,” or “thou shalt nots.” St. Paul called the Old Testament a “pedagogue,” a “disciplinarian,” something that God had given us precisely to prepare for the New. Just like a parent begins to instruct a child morally through describing what they shouldn’t do — “don’t stick the key into the electric outlet,” “don’t put your hand on the fire,” “don’t hit your little sister,” “don’t cross the road without looking both ways first” — because these are much clearer for children to understand than larger positive commands that require some interpretation and application, God does the same thing with training us toward holiness. He gives us first what we shouldn’t do.
  • Through Moses in the Book of Leviticus, he tells us not to steal, not to lie or speak falsely, not to defraud or rob, not to withhold wages, not to curse the deaf, not to trip up the blind, not to make dishonest judgments, not to play favorites, not to spread slander, not to stand idly by when our neighbor’s life is threatened, not to bear hatred, not to take revenge and not to cherish grudges. All of this is summarized at the end in the positively phrased “Golden Rule,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in practice in Old Testament morality, this was understood as “Do not do to your neighbor what you would not want him to do to you.” This was the way God was training them in the perfection of holiness, by first clearly indicating to them behaviors that were contrary to charity.
  • Throughout the Gospels, Jesus would himself teach us and show us what the perfection of charity was in his own care for the poor, hungry, grieving, abandoned, and all others in need. He called us to love others as he has loved us first to the point of washing their feet, crossing the road to care for their wounds, forgiving them and praying for them even when they were making themselves our enemies. But not even that was enough for Jesus. In today’s Gospel he gives us in a sense the pinnacle of his teaching on charity by identifying so much with others that he says that he takes personally whatever we do or fail to do to them. St. John wrote in his first epistle that we cannot love the God we have not seen if we don’t love the brother or sister we do see. And Jesus wants to help us to grow in the capacity for love by making it “easier” for us, calling us to treat others the way we would treat him, since he presumes that if we knew we were caring for him directly most of us would give it our best.
  • And so the questions come for us:
  • When we see someone who’s hungry or thirsty, do we try to help get him food or do we tell him to go get a job? And if we know that Jesus identifies with the hungry, is it enough for us to wait for someone who is hungry to approach us for food — a somewhat frequent occurrence for someone in big cities, especially outside of Churches, but a relatively rare one here in Fall River — or do we go out in search of Jesus in the disguise of the man or woman or child with hunger pains?
  • Do we welcome strangers or do we resent their presence? There is a terrible xenophobia (a fear of the stranger) present in some parts of our country, including among Catholics, with regard to immigrants. Many of us don’t see them as brothers and sisters and we certainly don’t see them as Jesus Christ. If we did, would we ever ask to see Jesus’ green card? Would we ever fight to have Jesus deported? Yet this is what many Catholics clamor for with regard to immigrants who entered or stayed in our country illegally. Jesus tells us that they way we treat them is the way we treat him. We can see the same dynamic on a lesser scale happen in Catholic parishes. When a stranger comes to Church, do we welcome him or her the way we would embrace Jesus, or do we ignore the person, or even make the person feel unwelcome if he or she doesn’t know when to stand or sit or kneel at the appropriate times, or takes our pew, or has come from the street? If we know Christ identifies with the stranger, do we go out in search of people to provide a welcome?
  • Do we clothe the naked or do we take advantage of their nudity? Today we’re living in an age of rampant pornography where so many are trained not to clothe the naked but strip them with their eyes and minds. So many fuel and fund the porn industry despite the fact that Jesus identifies with every person violated and objectified in this way. Similarly when we see someone without proper clothing, do we seek to help or do we leave the person on his own? If we know Christ identifies with the naked, do we go out in search of people, for example, who do not have winter coats?
  • Do we a preferential care for those who are sick or do we ignore them lest we catch what they have? If we know Christ identifies with those who are ill, do we lovingly go out of our way to visit those who are in hospitals and nursing homes, rehab centers or homebound? Sickness is one of the most vulnerable times of life, a time not only of pain but also of occasional desperation when one has to suffer alone. Jesus had a special care for the sick and he wants all of us to do so remembering that when we see anyone ill, we should recognize that Jesus is saying to us, “I am ill and I need you to care for me.”
  • Do we care for prisoners at all or just think of them as a bunch of thugs of whom our only reaction should be fear? Not everyone is called to prison ministry to strangers, but when we know someone in prison, do we seek to write that person and visit? Do we pray for those who are incarcerated? Do we seek to send Rosary Beads or Bibles to help the time of imprisonment be a time of conversion rather than of hardening of hearts? When someone is released from prison and we meet the person in Church, do we continue to treat him mainly as an ex-con or do we try to help him get back on his feet?
  • Jesus identified with the needy because he himself on the Cross experienced all of the attributes he describes. He was hungry on the Cross and cried out in his fifth words, “I thirst!” He was stripped totally naked (the loin cloth with which he’s vested on the Crucifix is merely for our sense of decorum). He was a stranger even in the world he created, kicked out of his own city of Jerusalem to die as a malefactor at the place of the skull. He was sick and wounded, having had his flesh ripped open by a brutal Roman scourging, having been beaten and crowned with thorns. He was imprisoned not only in the high priest’s dungeon but pinned to the cross not by chains but by nails. He continues to live out his crucifixion when people don’t care for him, don’t love him, in others.
  • This Lent the Lord wants us to hunger for what he hungers for, and to inspire us to recognize that in every hungry stomach, in every stranger hungry for welcome, in every prisoner hungry for forgiveness and a second change, in every sick person hungry for consolation, we meet Christ who longs to say to us, “I was hungry and you fed me.”
  • Today as we come to this Mass, we ask the Lord Jesus, who we behold under the appearances of simple bread and wine here, to help us to recognize him in the disguise of the poor we’ll meet later in the day. We ask him to help us to hunger and thirst for the charity toward others for which he hungers and thirsts. We ask him to recognize that we, too, are strangers on pilgrimage together with him and that just as he has provided for us, we’re called to share that generosity; to grasp that when we’ve been ill because of our sins and needed a doctor, he’s always been there; to see that we’re naked and transparent before him but that he wants to clothe us in his virtues; to realize that we’re imprisoned in our own worldly logic that rationalizes the lack of charity but that he wants to help us to use our freedom to do as much good as we can, to love as much as we can, to grow to do for others what he has first done for us.
  • And we have a great saint today to help us to learn how to love God and others. St. Polycarp was the heroic bishop of Smyrna in southwestern Turkey who was martyred on this day in 155. He learned the Gospel as a young boy from St. John the Apostle, who in his later years, St. Jerome tells us, never tired of simply preaching, “Little children, love one another,” saying that he would do so because the Lord never tired of calling us to love others in this way. With Pope St. Clement and St. Ignatius of Antioch (a saint whom he knew and from whom he received a celebrated letter), he is one of the three great Apostolic fathers, the great leaders of second generation of Christians, the ones who succeeded the apostles. We know how the faith spread so much in the first generations: it was the witness of martyrdom — that sane people treated Jesus as someone worth living for and dying for — and the witness of Christian charity, that Christians would sell all they had, lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles and bishops to care for everyone as family members where needed. He presided over that charity. And at the end of life he also spread the faith, out of love for God and others, through his martyrdom. He was given a chance to save his life simply by cursing Jesus Christ. He replied, “For 86 years I have served him and he has done me no wrong, why would I betray him now?” They sentenced him to be burned at the stake. They tied his feet to the stake and were about to nail his feet, but he said, “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” After he had prayed, they lit the fire, and the Christian eyewitnesses noted in their account of his martyrdom, “When a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.” He entered into the sacrifice of Christ that he had the privilege of celebrating each morning. We ask him to pray for us that we might be able to hunger for the holiness for which both God hungers and he hungered and seek it in the charity of which Jesus’ self-giving love in the Eucharist is the model and means.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
LV 19:1-2, 11-18

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.“You shall not steal.
You shall not lie or speak falsely to one another.
You shall not swear falsely by my name,
thus profaning the name of your God.
I am the LORD.“You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor.
You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer.
You shall not curse the deaf,
or put a stumbling block in front of the blind,
but you shall fear your God.
I am the LORD.“You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment.
Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty,
but judge your fellow men justly.
You shall not go about spreading slander among your kin;
nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake.
I am the LORD.“You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove him,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 19:8, 9, 10, 15

R. (John 6:63b) Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart.
The command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
Let the words of my mouth and the thought of my heart
find favor before you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.

Gospel
MT 25:31-46

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”