Becoming Perfect in and by God’s Mercy, First Saturday of Lent, February 20, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Michael Parish, Fall River, MA
Saturday of the First Week of Lent
Memorial of Blessed Francisco and Jacinta Marto
Parish Lenten Day of Recollection during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy
February 20, 2016
Dt 26:16-19, Ps 119, Mt 5:43-48

 

Today’s homily was preached in Portuguese during a day of recollection. Here are the thoughts that were incorporated in the homily: 

  • On this Lenten Day of Recollection during this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Jesus gives us a very powerful message at the end of today’s Gospel. He says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The whole point of Lent is to become like God the Father, to grow fully into God’s image and likeness, to become fully Christian in identity and behavior — and that involves rediscovering or deepening our relationship with God in the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. On Ash Wednesday, we pondered how Jesus calls us to give alms, fast and pray differently from everyone else, doing each of these things in communion with our Father who sees in secret: We’re supposed to give alms recognizing that all that we are able to give to others we have first received from God the Father, and so our giving is an extension of his own loving Providence; we’re supposed to fast in order to hunger for what he hungers for, the type of loving concern for others that he describes in the Prophet Isaiah; we’re supposed to pray by meeting God the Father in our “inner room,” the locked “store room” in a Jewish house where all valuables were kept, indicating to us not only are we supposed to treasure God most but also his love in coming to meet us in the tiny “closet” of our interior life, whether we’re praying at home or in the middle of a multitude.
  • Lent is the time in which with God’s help we reorder our relationship with God through prayer, our relationship with others through almsgiving, our relationship with ourselves through fasting and self-denial. It’s a time to convert our hearts, our insides, our motivations, our aspirations, so that from the inside out, in all our actions, we might live as Christians ought, in the love of God the Father. Lent is the time when we relive the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we come to our senses as to how we’ve treated God as if he were not a loving Father, wandered from his house, squandered the inheritance he has given us and make the journey home. It’s a time when he runs out to meet us, to cleanse us, to restore us to our full dignity and to rejoice with us at our conversion. It’s the time when God the Father invites us to enter into his own merciful, loving heart and become his children. Lent is about becoming more and more Godlike. During this Jubilee of Mercy, it’s a time for us in a special way to learn how to become “merciful like our Father” is merciful.
  • When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” it’s easy to be thrown off by the word “perfect” and think that this is an unachievable standard, because after all, none of us is perfect, none of us will ever be perfect, and therefore if God is calling us never to make a mistake, then he’s calling us to something beyond human capacity. Therefore we can feel somewhat justified in dismissing what Jesus says as if it’s clearly impossible, an unattainable goal. But in calling us to “perfection,” Jesus is saying, “Be like your heavenly Father.” He was specifically calling us to be merciful like him in the particular ways he describes in the Gospel. Earlier in the passage he gave us specific exhortations so that we “may be children of [our] Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Jesus implies that we will not really become children of God until we start behaving like God, until we start treating the good and the bad with merciful love. He was suggesting that God can be our Father without our being his children unless we experience the inner revolution to which Jesus is calling us and unless we seek to act as his children, to behave like Jesus who shows us how to live as a Son of God and imitate the Father’s mercy. Just as God the Father loves everyone and does good to everyone, including those who curse him, including those who make themselves his enemy through sin and an evil life, including those who try to use him whenever they need him, Jesus calls us to do the same, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to walk the second mile, to give our cloak as well as our tunic, to give generously to all those who need to borrow. We’re called to be good — to let our sun or life-giving rain fall — not just on those who are good to us but even on those who are not good to us, just like the Father does. This type of mercy is the path to true holiness, this is the means by which we become, in action, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, by forgiving as he forgives, behaving as he behaves, loving as he loves. When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, the word he uses is “agape,” the same word he uses when he calls us to love others as he has loved us. This means “invincible goodwill,” “unconquerable benevolence.” No matter what others do to us, no matter how they treat us, not matter how much they grieve or injure us, we will never allow bitterness against them to invade our hearts. This means that the love to which Jesus is calling us won’t be a thing of the emotions or the heart but of the will. God’s agape for us, loving us while we were making ourselves his enemies through sin, gives us the power to love those we don’t like. It’s aimed at helping them rather than taking revenge. And the way we learn how to love our enemies by his praying for them, which is why Jesus immediately after calling us to love our enemies calls us to pray for our persecutors. It’s hard to pray for someone and hate them at the same time. Jesus makes plain that we cannot be like God the Father when we don’t love others enough to forgive them when they hurt us, to pray for them when they persecute us, to sacrifice for them when they’re in need, to avoid all vengeance against them when they strike us on our cheek or otherwise hurt or offend us.
  • It’s also helpful to understand what Jesus means when he calls us to be “perfect” like our Father in heaven. The Greek word St. Matthew uses is “teleios,” which is the adjective that comes from the noun “telos,” which means “end” or “goal.” Teleios means fit to achieve its end or purpose. When Jesus calls us — in fact commands us —to be “teleios” as our heavenly Father is “teleios,” he’s not intending that we engage in a type of errorless and sinless perfectionistic striving for the unattainable that will destroy our spiritual, psychological and physical lives. Rather, he is summoning us to order our lives to the same purpose and same goal as God the Father, to mature to full stature, to achieve the end for which we were made, which is to be fully in the image and likeness of Godto be holy as God is holy, to love like God loves, to be merciful as he is merciful, to behave truly as children of our Father. And through the Sacraments, Prayer, the Word of God, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, God the Father is seeking to help us to become like him. Even when someone slaps us on the cheek, or begs from us, or hates or persecute us, all of can be used by God to bring us to perfection. This was the path God the Father used to perfect Jesus according to his humanity. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered and, being perfected, because the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Jesus was perfected according to his human nature, precisely through his suffering. He was perfected when he didn’t retaliate against the brutal Roman soldiers who slapped him, mocked him and put a crown of thorns on his head. When they took his tunic in order to scourge and crucify him, he allowed them to take his cloak as well. When they compelled him to walk with the Cross on his shoulders, he continued nearly two miles, helped by Simon of Cyrene. When he was being crucified, he cried out with love for his enemies and prayer for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” And by his horrendous but salvific death, Jesus made salvation and sanctification possible. By what he won through this apparent defeat he gained for us the graces to be able to love as he loves, to become not just in name but in action children of the Father living in his image and likeness.
  • There are some Christians who want to pretend that there has to another way, that we can still please God, live a good Christian life, and get to heaven without taking Jesus’ words seriously and literally. Some Catholics want to cling to the belief that as long as we do a few good deeds, come to Mass, pray a little each day, give something to the poor, give up meat on Lenten Fridays and a little bit more than one meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, that that’s all that God wants and demands of us, that we can then live by the same standards by which everyone else lives; that we can continue to live like everyone else lives, loving those who love us, hating those who hate us. Rather than striving for sanctity, we believe that if someone takes something from us, we’re justified in taking his eye or her tooth; we’re perfectly okay in slapping someone back who slaps us first; we’re fine in loving only those whom we think deserve our love, being generous only to those whom we trust, and vanquishing our enemy before our enemy vanquishes us. Today is the day in which Jesus wants us to recognize that this is not the way to human fulfillment. It’s not the way to happiness. It’s not the way to heaven.
  • In the first reading today, Moses said, “This day the Lord, your God commands you to observe these statues. Be careful then to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you are making a covenant with the Lord: he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees and to hearken to his voice.” In the Psalm we ponder how blessed are the people who don’t just know but follow the Law of the Lord, who walk in his law, who observe his decrees, who are firm by keeping his statutes, who seek him with all their heart. Today the Lord Jesus wants us to help us become blessed in that way and transfer our heart and behavior to be more and more like God’s. He summons us to observe what he tells us in the Gospel with all our heart and soul, and to open ourselves to receive from Him the grace of the new and eternal Covenant in his blood, here given for us, so that we may actually live up to his standards and become teleios as he was teleios from the inside out. If we embrace this reality with all our heart and continue to embrace it in little things, then  we will experience the blessedness of all those who follow the law of the Lord!
  • Today the Church celebrates two great examples of how to become perfect like the Father is perfect, merciful as he is merciful and holy as he is holy. And they both became holy in a very short span of time on earth, with one dying at the age of 10 and the second a year later at the age of 9. And they show us a special secret, a “short cut” we could say, about how to become most quickly like God. Today we celebrate the feast of Blessed Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the three seers of Fatima to whom Mary appeared and gave them what we might deem adult responsibilities: to pray the Rosary and to offer themselves as victims of reparation for the conversion of sinners and the forgiveness of the sins of the world. Despite Francisco’s being only 9 and Jacinta 7, they responded with childlike trust and total dedication to this charge. Mary showed them three images to convince them of the stakes of what she was asking them to do. The first vision was of hell, where Mary told them “the souls of poor sinners go.” They saw, as the third seer Lúcia Santos recounted, “a great sea of fire” with “demons and souls in human form… amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair,” which made them tremble with horror. Had Mary not promised them that she would help them get to heaven, Lûcia said, she thinks they would have died of fear and terror. The second image conveyed to them that World War I would soon end, but Mary said that if people did not stop offending God a worse one would erupt in which God would “punish the world for its crimes.” She warned that unless Russia were converted, the communists would spread their errors throughout the world, causing war, annihilating nations, persecuting the Church and martyring millions. To avoid these ills, she asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart and that people receive Holy Communion in reparation on first Saturdays. The third was a prophetic vision. An angel with a flaming sword cried out “Penance, Penance Penance!” as the children beheld a steep way of the Cross through a city laden with the corpses of martyred bishops, priests, religious and lay people, at the top of which was a “bishop in white” who likewise was shot and killed. By means of the three visions, the children saw the real consequences of sin — hell, a world through in total turmoil, and a Church persecuted to the point of martyrdom. They also saw the remedy for sin and all its effects: consecration to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, which is also what we might call the “short cut to spiritual perfection” with Mary as the teacher.  They learned that a pure heart which “sees God” in all situations, says “fiat” to Him at all times, treasures His word and acts on it, is a stronger weapon that all the earth’s bullets, bombs and hijacked airplanes put together. The children took up the arms of prayer and sacrifice and heroically put them to use.
  • From that point forward, Francisco began to pray almost constantly to “console Jesus for the sins of the world.” One night, when his father discovered him sobbing in his room, Francisco gave the reason: “I was thinking of Jesus who is so sad because of the sins that are committed against him.” Jacinta was so convinced by the vision of the reality of Hell of the importance of saving sinners from it that she began to pour herself into prayer and practice various corporal mortifications. “Pray, pray much and make sacrifices for sinners,” Mary had told her. “Many souls go to hell because they have no one to pray and make sacrifices for them.” Jacinta responded, as did her brother, by prostrating themselves in prayer for hours, kneeling with their heads humbly bowed to the ground. When both caught the terrible 1918 flu that took the lives of tens of thousands, they offered all of their sufferings for sinners. Having been told by Our Lady that she would take him to heaven soon, Francisco declined hospital treatment, bearing enormous pain with a smile and without complaint. Our Lady appeared to Jacinta and asked if she wanted to stay on earth a little longer to convert more sinners. She said yes. So the little girl allowed herself to be dragged from clinic to clinic, to have two of her ribs removed without anaesthesia, valiantly sacrificing herself as a victim for the conversion of sinners and for the Holy Father, whom she knew from the vision would suffer much. When St. John Pope John Paul II beatified them in Fatima in 2000, he lifted them up as an example to the whole world of what Christ-like and Marian love for the salvation of others looks like. He also stressed that their lives demonstrate that children can be heroically virtuous and reach “the heights of perfection” at a very young age. Jacinta, in fact, is the youngest non-martyred saint in Church history. Echoing the words of our Lady, the Pope reminded all children, “Our Lady needs you all to console Jesus, who is sad because of the bad things done to him; he needs your prayers and your sacrifices for sinners.” What children are capable of, all children of God are likewise capable, if only we follow the lead of the Mother of Mercy with the same docility with which Jacinta and Francisco did. Once when Francisco was suffering and one of the nurses asked how he was able to bear so much pain, he said, referring to Mary, “I had a good teacher.” Indeed he did. And on this Saturday we likewise can enroll in Our Lady’s School of Mercy and with Jacinta and Francisco from heaven, full of mercy, turn to God who is rich in mercy, and pray and offer ourselves as victims of reparation for the conversion of sinners and the forgiveness of the sins of the world, begging God, like he did with them, to bring us to the heights of perfect of mercy as well!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
DT 26:16-19

Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“This day the LORD, your God,
commands you to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then,
to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you;
and provided you keep all his commandments,
he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made,
and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God,
as he promised.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 119:1-2, 4-5, 7-8

R. (1b) Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
I will give you thanks with an upright heart,
when I have learned your just ordinances.
I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

Gospel
MT 5:43-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
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