Perfection, Holiness and Mercy

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – February 19, 2017

Light of candles into a church

Pixabay.com - Foto-Rabe

Roman Rite

Lv 19, 1-2.17-18; Ps 103; 1 Cor 3.16 to 23; Mt 5.38 to 48

Ambrosian Rite

Bar 1,15a; 2, 9-15a; Ps 105; Rm 7,16a; Jn 8.1 to 11

Next to last Sunday after Epiphany, called “Sunday of the divine mercy”

1) Perfection is to accept love.

In this Sunday’s readings there are two sentences that have particularly impressed me: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy (Lev 19: 2 – 1st reading) and” Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect “(Mt 5, 48 – Gospel). They give rise to the following questions:” What are then the holiness to which God in the book of Leviticus drives us and the perfection to which Jesus calls us? Who can become perfect as God the Father? “

The phrase of Christ reported by St. Luke “Be merciful as your Father” (Lk 6, 36) can help with the answer. Combining this sentence to the one mentioned by St. Matthew: “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5, 48) we can say in the first place that the perfection of God is his mercy. Then, we can be perfect if we live mercy. “Goodness and perfection are rooted on mercy” (Pope Francis). With the Pope we can say that the perfection of man is the conquest of mercy, and mercy is the synthesis of the happy and good news brought by the Redeemer.

Secondly, we can say that our perfection is to live humbly as children of God by putting in practice His will that gives us clear directions: the commandments. St Cyprian wrote that “To the fatherhood of God must match a behavior as children of God, so that God may be glorified and praised by the good conduct of man “(De zelo et livore, 15: CCL 3a, 83).

Thirdly, it must be remembered that Christ does not ask us perfection in the observance of legal codes and regulations. He want us perfect, of course, but in love.

Let me explain it by taking an episode of the life of St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus. At a certain point of her life, this holy nun wondered how in heaven we will all be fully and perfectly happy, having reached different degrees of holiness. Then, little Teresa had this illumination: “Let’s imagine that heaven is like a beautiful field full of flowers of all kinds, from the biggest to the smallest, from roses to daisies, from lilies to cyclamens. The morning dew fills the various flowers according to their size. None of them is fuller than the other. Everyone is full, perfect of love and joy and is not, therefore, jealous of the one that is bigger. “

We cannot be holy like, for example, Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus,  St. Benedict, St. Francis, Saint Pius of Pietrelcina, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Surely we will be much less, but this is not what counts.  What counts is the fact that we allow our hearts – as small as a daisy or as large as a lily- to be filled by the love of God.

To be perfect in holiness means to believe in Love, expanding our hearts so that they will accept God.

Let us open ourselves to God’s love. Ultimately, holiness, even if it is our response to God, is a gift from God. We must open ourselves to Him in faith and receive His love.

2) The sanctity of the beatitudes.

Someone might argue that this holiness of love, as welcome of Love, is too easy. It is not easier than the one acquired by Saint Mary Magdalene, the public sinner. This woman fell at the feet of Christ, and, when she got up, she obtained his eulogy: “Her many sins are forgiven, for she loved much” (Lk 7, 47). What does it mean “she loved much”? What had she done? She had believed in the Love, she has done nothing else. All her sins had not stopped her in the love that she threw at the feet of Christ. She had believed and had open herself to receive the gift of divine love that filled her.

The history of every Christian is the one of a love fulfilled always and, at the same time, open to new horizons because God continually stretches the possibilities of the soul so to make it capable of ever greater goods. God himself, who has sown in us the seeds of good, and from whom every initiative of holiness starts, “models the block … and, polishing and cleansing our spirit, forms Christ within us” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, In Psalmos 2:11: PG 44,544B).

This love is put into practice by those who live the Beatitudes. It is, in fact, significant that St. Matthew relates the expressions of Jesus “Be perfect just as perfect is your Father who is in heaven” at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus proclaimed the Beatitudes and promulgated the code of the new law of love.

It is not a coincidence that Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, after declaring the Beatitudes. Without the spirit and practice of the Beatitudes we cannot be salt and light that the world, engulfed in the darkness of the new paganism, desperately needs.

In a society dominated by hatred and violence and torn apart by divisions and conflicts, to announce heroic love for the enemies and prayer for the persecutors means to bring about a true revolution needed by the society of all times and all places. It is the revolution of love, which has its source and its model in the infinite and humble love of the Heavenly Father.

The indication of the Redeemer is clear: to imitate our heavenly Father we must live in the spirit of the Beatitudes and open up completely to the love of the Father, ” who makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust“(Mt 5, 45). Indeed, how can we claim to want to imitate the Father who loves, gives and forgives, if we remain inside the shell of our selfishness, ephemeral slaves of the goods of the world, with a heart close to the needs and suffering of the brothers?

The call to be perfect like the Father is not a request to climb the top of a high mountain. We are not asked to be strong and experienced climbers of the Spirit, as were the saints already canonized by the Church. God’s perfection is the goal for all the disciples of Jesus and for all Christians who want to bear much fruit, and thus give glory to our Heavenly Father (Jn 15: 8).

The grandeur or divine perfection is on a human scale, because it is the greatness of humility. “God, humble, lowers himself: he come to us and lowers himself” (Pope Francis). From heaven to earth. The Son of God lowers himself into the cave of Bethlehem and on the Cross of Jerusalem, passing through the kneeling before the apostles to wash their feet. The humility of Christ, Son of God, is an offer to Love. It is a humility whose source and center is the divine heart. As taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote profound things on God’s humility, “God is really the source, the center and the heart of humility. In Him there is no selfishness. He is all momentum towards the Other: from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father in unity with the Holy Spirit “(Father Maurice Zundel). This mutual donation is communicated to us and makes us “perfect” if we humbly give to Him not only what we have but what we are. God lowers himself on our fragility and saves it with his tenderness.

If we were really convinced that God “believes” in us, we would believe in Him. If we were conscious of being loved by Him tenderly and without limits, we would reply to His love, and we would make our lives a total gift to him in humility, peace, truth, and joy.

A significant way of totally responding to God, offering themselves to Him, is the one of the consecrated Virgins in the world. With the rite of consecration and then, with their daily life lived humbly and tenderly in Him, these women testify that the fact of belonging to God does not limit freedom. A life lived in loving dialogue with Him is a life in freedom that the truth of Love makes effective. The lust of the flesh and of the eyes, and the pride of life are transformed into purity of heart and look to Christ, who – on the cross – hold his arms always open with tenderness and humility. These consecrated women testify that consecrated life is a life of perfection and a sign for all Christians as Cardinal Newman teaches: “It is the opinion of many saints that if we want to be perfect, all we must do is to fulfill our daily duties. It is a short path that leads to perfection; short, not because it is easy, but because everyone can follow it…

On the essence of perfection it is easier to have vague ideas, ideas that can help us to talk about it, when we have no intention to work towards them resolutely. But when we really want perfection, and we try to reach it, then only what is clear and palpable can give satisfactory results since it offers a kind of practical indication that is a way to get there…

It is perfect the one who does rightly his daily actions; to achieve perfection we need not to go beyond this limit.

If you ask me what you need to do to be perfect, I will answer this: do not stay in bed after the time of rising; target your first thoughts to God; make a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament; pray well the Rosary; collect your thoughts; send away the evil thoughts; do with devotion the evening meditation; examine your conscience every day. Do this and you will be perfect “(Card. John-Henri Newman). These are simple gestures that make our “prayer the outpouring of our heart into God’s heart” (Saint Pius) and our actions, small or large, a manifestation of mercy towards all.

Patristic reading

Saint Augustine of Hippo

on Mt 5,38-42

  1. Hence the Lord goes on to say: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil;165 but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat [tunic, undergarment], let him have thy cloak166 also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee,167 and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” It is the lesser righteousness of the Pharisees not to go beyond measure in revenge, that no one should give back more than he has received: and this is a great step. For it is not easy to find any one who, when he has received a blow, wishes merely to return the blow; and who, on hearing one word from a man who reviles him, is content to return only one, and that just an equivalent; but he avenges it more immoderately, either under the disturbing influence of anger, or because he thinks it just, that he who first inflicted injury should suffer more severe injury than he suffered who had not inflicted injury. Such a spirit was in great measure restrained by the law, where it was written, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;” by which expressions a certain measure is intended, so that the vengeance should not exceed the injury. And this is the beginning of peace: but perfect peace is to have no wish at all for such vengeance.
  1. Hence, between that first course which goes beyond the law, that a greater evil should be inflicted in return for a lesser, and this to which the Lord has given expression for the purpose of perfecting the disciples, that no evil at all should be inflicted in return for evil, a middle course holds a certain place, viz. that as much be paid back as has been received; by means of which enactment the transition is made from the highest discord to the highest concord, according to the distribution of times. See, therefore, at how great a distance any one who is the first to do harm to another, with the desire of injuring and hurting him, stands from him who, even when injured, does not pay back the injury. That man, however, who is not the first to do harm to any one, but who yet, when injured, inflicts a greater injury in return, either in will or in deed, has so far withdrawn himself from the highest injustice, and made so far an advance to the highest righteousness; but still he does not yet hold by what the law given by Moses commanded. And therefore he who pays back just as much as he has received already forgives something: for the party who injures does not deserve merely as much punishment as the man who was injured by him has innocently suffered. And accordingly this incomplete, by no means severe, but [rather] merciful justice, is carried to perfection by Him who came to fulfil the law, not to destroy it. Hence there are still two intervening steps which He has left to be understood, while He has chosen rather to speak of the very highest development of mercy. For there is still what one may do who does not come fully up to that magnitude of the precept which belongs to the kingdom of heaven; acting in such a way that he does not pay back as much, but less; as, for instance, one blow instead of two, or that he cuts off an ear for an eye that has been plucked out. He who, rising above this, pays back nothing at all, approaches the Lord’s precept, but yet he does not reach it. For still it seems to the Lord not enough, if, for the evil which you may have received, you should inflict no evil in return, unless you be prepared to receive even more. And therefore He does not say, “But I say unto you,” that you are not to return evil for evil; although even this would be a great precept: but He says, “that ye resist not evil;”168 so that not only are you not to pay back what may have been inflicted on you, but you are not even to resist other inflictions. For this is what He also goes on to explain: “But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also:” for He does not say, If any man smite thee, do not wish to smite him; but, Offer thyself further to him if he should go on to smite thee. As regards compassion, they feel it most who minister to those whom they greatly love as if they were their children, or some very dear friends in sickness, or little children, or insane persons, at whose hands they often endure many things; and if their welfare demand it, they even show themselves ready to endure more, until the weakness either of age or of disease pass away. And so, as regards those whom the Lord, the Physician of souls, was instructing to take care of their neighbours, what else could He teach them, than that they endure quietly the infirmities of those whose welfare they wish to consult? For all wickedness arises from infirmity169 of mind: because nothing is more harmless than the man who is perfect in virtue.
  1. But it may be asked what the right cheek means. For this is the reading we find in the Greek copies, which are most worthy of confidence; though many Latin ones have only the word “cheek,” without the addition of “right.” Now the face is that by which any one is recognised; and we read in the apostle’s writings, “For ye suffer,170 if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face:” then immediately he adds, “I speak as concerning reproach;”171 so that he explains what striking on the face is, viz. to be contemned and despised. Nor is this indeed said by the apostle for this reason, that they should not bear with those parties; but that they should bear with himself rather, who so loved them, that he was willing that he himself should be spent for them.172 But since the face cannot be called right and left, and yet there may be a worth according to the estimate of God and according to the estimate of this world, it is so distributed as it were into the right and left cheek that whatever disciple of Christ might have to bear reproach for being a Christian, he should be much more ready to bear reproach in himself, if he possesses any of the honours of this world. Thus this same apostle, if he had kept silence respecting the dignity which he had in the world, when men were persecuting in him the Christian name, would not have presented the other cheek to those that were smiting the right one. For when he said, I am a Roman citizen,173 he was not unprepared to submit to be despised, in that which he reckoned as least, by those who had despised in him so precious and life-giving a name. For did he at all the less on that account afterwards submit to the chains, which it was not lawful to put on Roman citizens, or did lie wish to accuse any one of this injury? And if any spared him on account of the name of Roman citizenship, yet he did not on that account refrain from offering an object they might strike at, since he wished by his patience to cure of so great perversity those whom he saw honouring in him what belonged to the left members rather than the right. For that point only is to be attended to, in what spirit he did everything, how benevolently and mildly he acted toward those from whom he was suffering such things. For when he was smitten with the hand by order of the high priest, what he seemed to say contumeliously when he affirms, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall,” sounds like an insult to those who do not understand it; but to those who do, it is a prophecy. For a whited wall is hypocrisy, i.e. pretence holding forth the sacerdotal dignity before itself, and under this name, as under a white covering, concealing an inner and as it were sordid baseness. For what belonged to humility he wonderfully preserved, when, on its being said to him, “Revilest thou the high priest?”174 he replied, “I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, Thou shall not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”175 And here he showed with what calmness he had spoken that which he seemed to have spoken in anger, because he answered so quickly and so mildly, which cannot be done by those who are indignant and thrown into confusion. And in that very statement he spoke the truth to those who understood him, “I wist not that he was the high priest:”176 as if he said, I know another High Priest, for whose name I bear such things, whom it is not lawful to revile, and whom ye revile, since in me it is nothing else but His name that ye hate. Thus, therefore, it is necessary for one not to boast of such things in a hypocritical way, but to be prepared in the heart itself for all things, so that he can sing that prophetic word, “My heart is prepared,177 O God, my heart is prepared.” For many have learned how to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love him by whom they are struck. But in truth, the Lord Himself, who certainly was the first to fulfil the precepts which He taught, did not offer the other cheek to the servant of the high priest when smiting Him thereon; but, so far from that, said, “If I have spoken evil, hear witness of the evil;178 but if well, why smitest thou me?”179 Yet was He not on that account unprepared in heart, for the salvation of all, not merely to be smitten on the other cheek, but even to have His whole body crucified.
  1. Hence also what follows, “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak180 also,” is rightly understood as a precept having reference to the preparation of heart, not to a vain show of outward deed. But what is said with respect to the coat and cloak is to be carried out not merely in such things, but in the case of everything which on any ground of right we speak of as being ours for time. For if this command is given with respect to what is necessary, how much more does it become us to contemn what is superfluous! But still, those things which I have called ours are to be included in that category under which the Lord Himself gives the precept, when He says, “If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat.” Let all these things therefore be understood for which we may be sued at the law, so that the right to them may pass from us to him who sues, or for whom he sues; such, for instance, as clothing, a house, an estate, a beast of burden, and in general all kinds of property. But whether it is to be understood of slaves also is a great question. For a Christian ought not to possess a slave in the same way as a horse or money: although it may happen that a horse is valued at a greater price than a slave, and some article of gold or silver at much more. But with respect to that slave, if he is being educated and ruled by time as his master, in a way more upright, and more honourable, and more conducing to the fear of God, than can be done by him who desires to take him away, I do not know whether any one would dare to say that he ought to be despised like a garment. For a man ought to love a fellow-man as himself, inasmuch as he is commanded by the Lord of all (as is shown by what follows) even to love his enemies.

 

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