We invite you to click the audio link below to listen to the recorded homily from the 8 AM Mass for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – video recordings will soon return to Holy Family!
We’ve all been there … we’ve been watching our favorite football team play a good game, but coming down to the final minutes of the game, there they are … down by three points, needing a final defensive stop to get the ball back and have one last chance to go down and win the game. The opposition is backed up deep on their own end of the field, and we watch … first down, we hold them; second down we make a great stop, bringing up a crucial third down. As the play unfolds, we watch from the edge of our seat, and to our elation, as their star receiver goes to make a first down catch, our star defensive player makes a great play to knock the ball down … we get the ball back as it falls harmless to the ground, clock stopped! We’re jumping up and down with excitement … but suddenly, the announcer says those three heart-wrenching words … “Flag on the play”.
As the camera replay shows it, the offensive player on the far end of the field, no where near the action, took a cheap shot on our young rookie corner, and he retaliates … and what did the referee see? Not the first shot, but the retaliation … and you are furious! The ball stays with the offense and your team’s hopes seemingly slip away. First down, game over … and you now need a new TV and remote control because, in your anger, you yourself make a bad decision!
Maybe it’s not a football game, but this type of thing plays itself all too often … how many times do those with children here those words, “But they started it!” In our careers, maybe it’s the job or the move up in position at the office that we worked so hard for, and we maybe cast seeds of doubt in the mind of our boss about ‘the other guy’ who’s trying for the same job? Or may it’s a friend, someone you entrusted with an important personal secret, and you soon find out that others know, or that this friend is slandering your name around town.
All of these things are challenges to our personal self control and means of growth in holiness, and how often we fail the test. The best football players, after years of experience, have learned through repeated training not to retaliate, despite their strongest emotions. But in the game of life, we don’t always have those chances to learn from our mistakes so easily.
God’s word speaks to us of growing in holiness, of striving to be who God has called us to be as His followers, when he tells us in today’s first reading, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am Holy.” Christ then goes on to tell us in our gospel to “be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” And how often we feel that sense of, knowing how hard or even impossible it may seem to live lives that are ‘perfect’, why should we even try? If it’s not possible, then why even put forth the effort?
We continue to learn in the Sermon on the Mount, which began with Christ’s teaching of the Beatitudes, that to be a disciple requires heeding a radical call to holiness, to be not like others, to be against the grain of society. Whereas our world often lives out the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” mentality, or even at times the sense of being so defensive that we act in the chance that the other may harm us, we take an eye, just in case they per chance could take our eye in the future.
How radical is Christ’s call to holiness? I can remember one of our seminary professors, a priest, helping to cast light on Christ’s word to not just merely turn the other cheek, but to turn and offer him the other cheek. When one is stuck on the right cheek, to be struck in such a way, assuming the other person is right-handed would mean that we have been struck with an open hand … the turn and offer the other cheek would require a back-handed slap across the face. Back-handed compliments are never good, to be back-stabbed by a good friend or confidant hurts us deeply. To be struck with a back-handed slap would be a sign of denigration, of being put down by another … so Christ teaches us it’s not merely enough to be hurt physically, but to lower ourselves to a position of being put down by the same action. Such a movement requires great humility … and it also means not retaliating for things done to us. Seems easier said than done, but being a holy disciple in the world is also easier said than done.
Such an action requires a dedicated choice – just as holiness is a clear choice, a path that we choose in our hearts to follow. Holiness is also not something that we merely sit back and have happen in our lives … it requires effort, it requires a movement towards love and kindness, of listening to that little voice of the Holy Spirit that tells, “You shouldn’t do that” and acting upon it. Holiness is always a choice away from sin …. just as darkness is the absence of light (think for example of a shadow), we have been created to be holy, as the first reading reminds us … to be anything but holy is a choice that we make away from the man or woman God has created us to be.
If we were to look through the history of the church and examine the lives of the saints, we would see how holiness shows itself at important moments in world history … in the early years of the church, say for the first few centuries, who are the saints? The majority are those who laid down their lives as martyrs while the church was being persecuted … those who maintained their faith in Christ without denying Him all the way to shedding their blood just as He has. During the Middle Ages of 13 & 14th centuries, as plagues, diseases, and the Black Death were rampant throughout Europe, the church sees saints arise in the religious who ran to offer Gods love and mercy to the suffering and dying where everyone else was running away. In the years during and following the French Revolution, we see a rise in the number of named saints in France … St Therese of Lesieux, St John Vianney, and others. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as we saw the value of human life be denigrated by things like the Industrial Revolution, Socialism and Communism, and the blood and suffering of multiple World Wars, we see saints such as St Maximillian Kolbe offering his life in the German Concentration Camp to save the life of a Jewish husband and father; we see Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta caring for the poor and sick, the dirty and dying on the streets of India; and we hear the message of St John Paul II speaking on the beauty and the dignity of the relationship between man and woman, created in the image and likeness of God, against the storm of the sexual revolution. Kolbe, Teresa, JP2 … each of these saints acting upon building up the dignity of the individual human person instead of tearing it down.
Today, I have no doubt at all that God is continuing His call to others to witness to their faith, to live lives of faithful discipleship, based upon prayer, commitment and fidelity to ones’ vocation, service to our neighbor, and love of God in and through all things. God continues to call us to be holy, be it in our schools or our workplaces; in our homes and in our towns; at sporting events, at church, on our commute to work, at all times, we are to be Christ to others … not despite the sufferings that we or our societies or our church may face, but because of them.
We again may see holiness as beyond our reach, something impossible to find within us, but in a few short weeks, we will begin our season of Lent, and we watch as Christ – fully human, fully Divine – lives out his Sermon on the Mount on His way to the Cross. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil,” could echo in our minds as we watch how he accepted the beating and torture of the Roman guards, subjecting himself to the personal pain of being rejected by the religious leaders and, yes, even His own disciples. Tried before Pontius Pilate, the very Word made flesh speaks not a word of retaliation, but begins his ascent to His throne of the Cross. From the Cross, we see the King of Kings stripped bare of his earthly clothes, handing over tunic and cloak, preparing himself to receive the garments of a resurrected priest, and from the cross, the greatest throne of all, he shows us how to “love your enemies, and bless those who persecute you,” as Jesus pleads for the Fathers mercy … “Forgive them, Father, for they know what they do.”
The way of holiness is not easy, but it is not impossible.
God is holy … so be holy. God is perfect … so be perfect.
God is love … be love.