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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 23, 2020
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
[79] Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 / Matthew 5:38-48

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The book of Leviticus goes back to the second year after the Exodus, around 1467 BC. It would reach its present form after various revisions between 538 BC and 332 BC. We like to imagine that over time we as a people mature in faith and morals; but human nature, while redeemed, remains broken. There are many who still search for meaning or purpose even though the great truth was revealed 3,500 years ago. We read:

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”

Everything that is said afterwards flows from that divine admonition. We are to wholeheartedly love our brothers and sisters. We are to pursue justice while always remembering the need for compassion and mercy. Although later eclipsed because of the hardness of hearts, the command of love that we attribute to Christ was given to Moses. Love is the spirit of the Law.

Holiness is sometimes defined as righteousness or right standing with God. However, this is less a description of holiness itself as it is reflective of the effects that flow from sanctity. Holiness is sometimes appreciated as “sacredness.  This meaning is drawn out in the story of the holy ground around the burning bush. Moses removed  his sandals as an acknowledgment that the ground is holy. However, here too the definition is inexact. The true holiness which is God, himself, could not be contained. It permeates the earth and the Scriptures note that Moses is transformed by his encounters with the divine. One might argue that “holy” is a name of God but one that cannot be truly defined. God is that mysterious and creative transcendent otherness that has deemed to come into a salvific communion with humanity. This otherness is defined in the Christian dispensation as “Holy, Holy, Holy” or the triune holiness. God reveals himself in Jesus Christ as both ONE (nature) and a TRINITY (persons). Seeking to understand the unfathomable, Augustine and Aquinas speak about the Trinity within the analogy of the human person: it is likened to the rational part of the human soul— “the mind, and the knowledge by which it knows itself, and the love by which it loves itself.”

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If there is any value in this speculation, it is in the fact that we must become like God. Our minds need to be enlightened by revelation and grace. We must know God and in truly knowing him, we (by necessity) love him. God takes the initiative but we are required to cooperate in opening our minds and in allowing our hearts to be softened and changed. This knowing God is more than a cold abstraction or an appreciation of the deity proposed by philosophers. The knowing that makes possible holiness is that of a saving encounter. God reveals himself as the one that has delivered the Israelites from bondage to the Egyptians. God reveals himself in Jesus Christ as the one who redeems us from the devil and from slavery to sin. The Father communicates his godhead through the incarnate Word. As Christians, we speak of this encounter with the divine as coming into a personal and communal faith in the Lord. Further, both in the Old and the New Testaments, this encounter with God is accompanied with the giving of commandments and the accompanying demand that we love one another. The Word sends the Holy Spirit upon his new People of God. Those who would have a share in eternal life must be infused by and joined together with divine Love. The one who is holy knows God in a vital and real relationship. The one who is holy obeys the commandments of God. The one who is holy allows his love for God to overflow upon his brothers and sisters. If we are to be holy as God is holy then we must be fully consecrated or set apart for his service— we belong wholly to him.

The responsorial repeats this message of sharing God’s holiness: “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name.” Blessing here is understood as a praising or adoration of God.  The Hebrews closely associate the name of someone with their personal identity. Names are not capricious. YOU are your name. That is why the calling upon the name of God was and “is” so very serious. We fulfill this command in many ways, particularly at the Sanctus at Mass (a truth I mention in many homilies).

St. Paul carries forward this theme of sharing in God’s holiness. He speaks of us as temples of God, of his holy presence. Again, where ever the divinity is found, his holiness permeates the person and his surroundings. Our jealous God will not share us: “all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

The alleluia verse speaks of being “truly perfected” in Christ. Our Lord tells us that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Here too he means holiness. Jesus uses all sorts of language to speak about this, notably how we must be born again or put on the likeness of God. Jesus says in the Gospel, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here again it is love that makes the transformation to holiness possible.

Jesus comes to restore that which was lost but he is also the fullness of revelation. The Romans thought the message of Jesus insane. Indeed, his own people would find him hard to understand. Even Christian believers are quick to compromise the assertions of Jesus. This love and holiness is foolishness to those who belong to the world. The kingdom of Christ stands in stark contrast to earthly kingdoms that do not know God. A fallen world still practices “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Can he really mean what he says?

Are we truly a holy people? Do we love our enemies? Do we pray for those who persecute us? Do we turn the cheek to those who attack us? Do we surrender to those who would take from us? Are we quick to give to any who would ask? Are we willing to go the extra mile for those who press us into service? The commands of Christ make us uncomfortable. There is a practical side to holiness that love unveils. It is more than empty words or piety. Indeed, to be holy as Christ is holy and to love as God loves us must always be measured by the passion and Cross.  It is love that disposes us to grace and holiness.  We must be temples or houses for the divine presence in this world if we hope to one day enter God’s house in the next.  Too many merely go through the motions.  It is by God’s power and holiness that we can be remade into the Lord’s likeness, that we might truly become the “holy ones” or saints of God.