“Be holy!” “Be perfect!” These terms are loaded with meaning – holiness, perfection. Today’s readings invite us to reflect on these words. How do we define them? We need to compare our definitions with those of the Lord and Holy Mother Church. More than likely there will be a discrepancy. This gives us an opportunity to welcome guidance in the true way of holiness and perfection, guidance from the Lord through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.
The reading from Leviticus reminds us that the Lord himself is holy – which does not surprise us – but then immediately concludes that since he is holy, we too must be holy: “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” Because we have no idea on our own how to be holy, the Lord gives us some fundamental principles – not about pious behavior in holy places, not about looking holy, but rather about what to avoid in our relationships with one another. We are told not to bear hatred for our brother or sister in our heart, not to take revenge, and to cherish no grudge against others. These dispositions begin in the heart and can lead to evil actions, which are certainly not holy.
To help us combat the tendencies in our nature that obstruct our growth in holiness, the second reading reminds us that we are “the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in [us].” The Spirit of God is Love, the Divine Power who makes it possible for us to be holy as he is holy. This is God’s desire for each one of us. The Theme for this Week puts it this way: “God is holy and perfect, and we are called to participate in his holiness and perfection. Love takes us up into the perfection of God.” God does not make us holy apart from himself, as if we could exist as our own holy island. We become holy because God, who is holy, dwells within us. He perfects our hearts by healing our woundedness, purifying us, and filling us with his divine love.
So, when Jesus in today’s Gospel challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he is not setting us up for certain failure. He is calling us to do as he does, and he is giving us what we need in order to do it, by dwelling within us. We come to the point where we believe what Pope Francis expresses in this week’s Spiritual Reflection: “Having been loved by God, we are called to love in return; having been forgiven, we are called to forgive; having been touched by love, we are called to love without waiting for others to love first; having been saved graciously, we are called to seek no benefit from the good we do.” This way of holiness, this life of love, is based on God’s love, which is what makes it possible for us. As Pope Francis says, “If the goal were impossible, the Lord would not have asked us to strive for it.”
Along the way, as we encounter all sorts of people, at times we fail to love, especially those whom we experience as our enemies. Failure, however, does not give us any excuse to give up trying. We need a renewal of grace, to be “recharged” with love from God, so that we can begin anew. God is always ready to provide this grace; he has an unlimited supply! The Responsorial Psalm beautifully reminds us, “He pardons all your iniquities, / heals all your ills. / He redeems your life from destruction, / crowns you with kindness and compassion.” God’s mercy is available to us especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by which he frees us from our sins and fills us with his grace so we can begin again loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Then we can once again confidently ask God “for the grace to be able to see others not as hindrances and complications, but as brothers and sisters to be loved” (Pope Francis).
“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is God’s desire for us – not that we never make mistakes, but that we love as he loves. Our Father invites us to be open to the ever-new possibilities of love and to cooperate with his grace to make his love a lived reality in our lives. Our model is Mary Most Holy, who stood at the foot of the Cross in perfect virtue, mirroring perfect love.
How do I strive to grow in holiness? When have I felt and experienced God’s divine love? What are the challenges I face to love and forgive others as God forgives me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.