Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Wednesday of Sixth Week, Year II
February 16, 2000
James 1:19-27; Mk 8:22-26
During this week and next, we are privileged to be able to hear St. James’ letter, which I have always found like spiritual direction, whispered into my ear. Christians haven’t changed that much in two millennia and his words are as relevant to us as they were to the twelve tribes of the dispersion. On Monday, we heard James tell us to be joyful in all our trials, to pray unwaveringly for God’s wisdom, to be proud of our humility and humble in our whatever gifts might make us rich. Yesterday James encouraged each one of us to persevere in carrying our Crosses so that we might receive the crown of life, to look at these Crosses as gifts, and to rejoice that God wills to bring us to birth with a word spoken in truth, so that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. We are meant to be his first fruits! Today James tells us how we will become them.
In today’s passage, James makes a transition from paraenesis to advice, from encouragement to concrete spiritual direction and moral teaching. And in a mere eight sentences he sums up, not just his entire letter to the twelve tribes, but the entire Christian moral life. Like a great teacher, he gives us the three things that are necessary for any true understanding, moral or otherwise: the starting point, the way, and the goal.
The starting point of the Christian moral life is the Word of God. James tells us that we should be quick to hear it and to humbly welcome it. He tells us in fact that it has already taken root in us — for we were created by it and then regenerated in a much more powerful way at baptism — and that it has the power to save us. He tells us to be slow to speak, slow to anger, and to strip away every vicious excess so that this Word of God might grow. Synthetically, then, he tells us to listen to and contemplate this Word of God, in divine revelation and in the natural law, which our reflection on the way God made us and the world.
The second point concerns the way. The moral life itself, the way of Christian existence, is, as James says, to act on this word. We are to be doers of the Word, not mere idle listeners of it, like Herod and the neo-Herodians we talked about yesterday. If all we do is listen to it, James tells us, we are deceiving ourselves. Then he gives us a wonderful simile to help understand how we should put the Word of God into action in our lives. He first describes the one who listens to God’s word but doesn’t put it into action as a man who looks into a mirror at the face he was born with and then promptly goes off forgetting what he looked like. In other words, the Word of God is the mirror which allows us to see who we really are. As the Second Vatican Council wrote so beautifully, Jesus, the Word made flesh, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear. Jesus, the Word of God, is that mirror who allows us to see who really are. If we only listen to the Word of God but forget this word in our daily lives and actions, we’re only deceiving ourselves, because we’re not really being ourselves.
James contrasts this self-deception with the man who peers into freedom’s ideal law and abides by it, the one who carries out the law in practice. We don’t have to be world-class exegetes to see that James identifies the mirror in this parallel metaphor with freedom’s ideal law. In other words, God’s word is freedom’s ideal law. Jesus, the Word of God, the sum of all revelation, is freedom’s ideal law. This is the law we are called to put into practice. This ideal law of revelation, this truth of God’s word, is ultimately meant to set us free, free to be fully alive and give glory to God, as the great maxim of St. Ireneus describes, Gloria Dei vivens homo. The law is not meant to imprison us, but ultimately to set us free, free so that we might love. And if the various “laws” we live under now are imprisoning us rather than setting us free, if they’ve become ends in themselves rather than means to set us free to love Jesus with all we’ve got, then we’re NOT doing God’s will in them, then we’re NOT putting God’s word into action! Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives, to set prisoners free, and too often the prisoners most in need of emancipation today are fervent Christians who have, often for no fault of their own, appropriated God’s word not as freedom’s ideal law, not as a liberation, but as a very burdensome, seemingly limitless list of do’s and don’ts. To do God’s word means first to understand it appropriately and then to put it into action appropriately. God’s word is ultimately one of love and love, when it is true, is the fulfillment of the law. Ama et fac quod vis, St. Augustine said. Love, love truly, and do whatever you want, because when you are truly loving God and truly loving all those he loved enough to die for, God’s law, God’s own spirit, abides in us and fulfills the law in us.
Finally, the goal or purpose of the moral life. James says that a person who puts the law into practice will be “happy in whatever he does.” The actual Greek expression is that this person will be blessed, makarios, the same term Christ uses in the Sermon of the Mount when he calls blessed those who live the beatitudes. The moral life, summarized in the doing of God’s word as is done in keeping the beatitudes, ultimately brings us to that eternal beatitude, in which we will be in God’s presence and see him face to face forever. This is the end for which we were made! This is the destination to which God, who loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, wanted that Son to bring us! This end is the ultimate reason why we were created free, so that we could choose God in love. The beatitudes, putting God’s Word rightly understood into action, prepare us and ultimately bring us to that eternal beatitude, because they are those actions in which we choose God in love here and now.
Today at this Mass let us ask the Lord to reveal to us in a new way freedom’s ideal law, his own Son, who fully reveals us to ourselves and makes our divine vocation clear. Let us ask him to free us from whatever shackles and misunderstandings bind us, so that we might choose him truly and fully, so that he might gloriously become truly alive in us, and so that we might be fully alive in Him now and forever. God love you!