Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Holiness of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 13-14; 1 COR 3:16-23; MT 5:38-48

Our Sunday readings teach us about the holiness of love, the connection between love and holiness.

In the reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will say, “Love your enemy . . . that you may be children of your heavenly Father. . . . Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The connection between love of God and love of neighbor is absolute.

The reading from Leviticus says the same thing, and straightforwardly. “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. . . . You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To be holy, to be united to God, is to love, not hate.


Now, if you are paying close attention, you will notice that the Lectionary has left out a big chunk: we skip from “be holy” in Leviticus 19:1-2 to “love your neighbor” in verses 17-18. What is in between?

The rest of the Gospel reading might make you worry about what else we might find in Leviticus. This is where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. . . . You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”

There is nowhere in the Gospels that so seems to pit Jesus against the Old Testament as this Sunday’s reading. Many people, reading only this, think that the Old Law – given above all precisely in Leviticus – is about hatred and revenge (along with a bunch of really annoying ceremonial rules). Thank God Jesus has saved us from the horrible Old Testament!

But remember that last week we heard Jesus say that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and in last week’s Gospel reading Jesus went to some length to show that his moral teaching is really about intensifying the Old Law, not replacing it. “Thou shalt not kill” becomes “whosoever is angry with his brother.” He does not reject the Law, he doubles down on it.

This is essential to understanding what Jesus says about this week’s Old Law teachings. “An eye for an eye” is not a command of revenge; it is a command that limits revenge. It means, if someone pokes your eye out, you can’t go kill his family, and you shouldn’t be poking out people’s eyes unless they’ve done the same to you. A well-meaning but thoughtless bumper sticker tells us, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” To the contrary, “an eye for an eye” means that if you have two eyes – which most of us do – you have no right ever to poke anyone else in the eye. The Old Law was limiting revenge, not commanding it.

So too when it says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This is a command to love, not to hate. It is a command to hate only your enemy – and it explicitly says that your neighbor is not your enemy. Jesus goes even further, but if we all loved our neighbors and only hated people who (a) were really our enemies and (b) were far enough away not to count as our neighbors – well, we’d be be pretty loving people.


All of this just means that the Old Law is not so ugly after all. Take some time to flip open Leviticus – or the Psalms – and find what it teaches about loving your neighbor. In the part our reading skips over, for example, Leviticus tells God’s people to leave some grain in their fields for the poor. We could learn a lot about love from the Old Testament. We could gain a good foundation for Jesus’ teaching by obeying the Old Testament’s strict law of love.


The reading from First Corinthians takes us deeper into this teaching on love in two ways.

First, practically, it tells us to renounce our own wisdom. How much peace there would be if we held our own opinions a bit more loosely!

But second, and more theoretically, it tells us that we are God’s temple. All I can say is that if you read the whole letter, you will find that it is not speaking primarily about us as individuals, but us as a community, a “people.” The “you” in the reading is plural; the temple is singular.

God dwells among us when we live as community; we worship him only by coming together. This is the deepest meaning of “Church,” and the deepest meaning of the commandment to love.


How does your love or hatred of your neighbors express itself when you come to worship?

Pope Francis on the Holiness of the Church

pope francisIn the Creed, after professing: “I believe in one Church”, we add the adjective “holy”; we affirm the sanctity of the Church, and this is a characteristic that has been present from the beginning in the consciousness of early Christians, who were simply called “the holy people” (cf. Acts 9:13, 32, 41; Rom 8:27; 1 Cor 6:1), because they were certain that it is the action of God, the Holy Spirit that sanctifies the Church.

You could say to me: but the Church is made up of sinners, we see them everyday. And this is true: we are a Church of sinners – and we sinners are called to let ourselves be transformed, renewed, sanctified by God.

There has been in history the temptation for some to say: the Church is only the Church of the pure, the perfectly consistent, and expels all the rest. This is not true! This is heresy! The Church, that is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her, she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers everyone the possibility of meeting him, of journeying toward sanctity.

“Well! Father, I am a sinner, I have tremendous sins, how can I possibly feel part of the Church?” Dear brother, dear sister, this is exactly what the Lord wants, that you say to him: “Lord, here I am, with my sins”. Is one of you here without sin? Anyone? No one, not one of us. We all carry our sins with us. But the Lord wants to hear us say to him: “Forgive me, help me to walk, change my heart!”.

And the Lord can change your heart. In the Church, the God we encounter is not a merciless judge, but like the Father in the Gospel parable. You may be like the son who left home, who sank to the depths, farthest from the Gospel. When you have the strength to say: I want to come home, you will find the door open. God will come to meet you because he is always waiting for you, God is always waiting for you, God embraces you, kisses you and celebrates. That is how the Lord is, that is how the tenderness of our Heavenly Father is.

The Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by his love, the strongest and the weakest, sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged or lost. The Church offers all the possibility of following a path of holiness, that is the path of the Christian: she brings us to encounter Jesus Christ in the Sacraments, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist; she communicates the Word of God to us, she lets us live in charity, in the love of God for all.

Let us ask ourselves then, will we let ourselves be sanctified? Are we a Church that calls and welcomes sinners with open arms, that gives courage and hope, or are we a Church closed in on herself? Are we a Church where the love of God dwells, where one cares for the other, where one prays for the others?

–General Audience, Wednesday, 2 October, 2013

Pope Francis on Holiness

pope francisA final question: what can I, a weak fragile sinner, do?

God says to you: do not be afraid of holiness, do not be afraid to aim high, to let yourself be loved and purified by God, do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Let us be infected by the holiness of God. Every Christian is called to sanctity (cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, nn. 19-42); and sanctity does not consist especially in doing extraordinary things, but in allowing God to act.

It is the meeting of our weakness with the strength of his grace, it is having faith in his action that allows us to live in charity, to do everything with joy and humility, for the glory of God and as a service to our neighbour.

There is a celebrated saying by the French writer Léon Bloy, who in the last moments of his life, said: “The only real sadness in life is not becoming a saint”. Let us not lose the hope of holiness, let us follow this path. Do we want to be saints?

The Lord awaits us, with open arms; he waits to accompany us on the path to sanctity. Let us live in the joy of our faith, let us allow ourselves to be loved by the Lord… let us ask for this gift from God in prayer, for ourselves and for others.

–Pope Francis, Wednesday General Audience, Oct. 2, 2013

The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Universal Call to Holiness

St Dominic with Bible

This reflection refers to the readings for next Sunday, September 29, 2013.

AM 6:1a, 4-7; PS 14:7, 8-9, 9-10; 1 TM 6:11-16; LK16:19-31

Many people know that the Second Vatican Council spoke of “the universal call to holiness” (an utterly traditional doctrine). But sometimes we are lazy in thinking about what words mean.

They did not proclaim “universal holiness”: they did not say everyone is holy, as if to pat ourselves on the back. They said everyone is called to holiness.

Nor did they just say everyone can be holy, though this is closer to the point. Part of what they are saying is that holiness (that is, to be a saint: by an accident of its history, English has two words, “holy” and “saint” for what is one word in other languages) is possible for everyone, in every state of life, with whatever natural endowments. But that’s not their main point.

The main point is that holiness is the call of every person. In fact, this is just another way of talking about the Christian doctrine of judgment, heaven, and hell: if you’re not heavenly, you’re hell-bound. There is no in-between, because God is everything.


Next Sunday’s readings take us into this teaching.

The first reading, from the prophet Amos, scolds us for laziness. Life is not about putting our feet up and eating grapes. Amos puts a point on it by saying, “yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph” – that is, by the destruction of Israel, image of the Church. Sin should bother us! If we don’t love the Church, love all that the Church is – that is, the Body of Christ – enough to be wounded by her wounds, sick at her sickness . . . well, then, we will get what we want: “Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile.” If we don’t love Christ and his Church, we will lose them. And that isn’t a happy thing.


The second reading, from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, puts an even sharper point on it. First he tells Timothy to be vigorous: “compete well for the faith!” Fight! “Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called” – by that universal call to holiness.

But then he makes it vivid: because we look forward to “the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We live our life not just in the humdrum of this world, but in the expectation that we will see him “who dwells in unapproachable light.” He is real! He is the ultimate! “The king of kings, and lord of lords.” Always we live in the expectation of one day seeing his face. The universal call to holiness means we will all see his face: the televisions will fade away, but Jesus remains. To love him or not is everything.


And then, as always, the Gospel makes it very real. The story is the rich man and Lazarus. As in Amos, the rich man is scolded for his laziness. But here “the collapse of Joseph,” the ruin of Israel, is made very personal in the poor man, Lazarus. Whatever you have done to the least of these my brothers . . . .

The point is that living holiness does not just mean mystical prayer. It certainly doesn’t mean hearing angelic voices. It means seeing the face of Jesus in the poor man before us: in the sufferings and weakness of our families and our colleagues, in the stranger who needs help and the homeless woman who knocks on our car window. That is where we live out this universal call. That is where we prepare for the eternal vision of Jesus: in the way we treat one another, especially the least of these.


The story ends with Jesus’s apparent lack of mercy for the rich man. The rich man asks for miraculous revelations for his family members.  But “Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”  The point is not God’s lack of mercy. The point is our lack of love. Christianity isn’t about miracles – not about God proving himself to us, by rising from the dead or anything else. Christianity is about “Moses and the prophets”: about love, living itself out practically. Resurrection only follows on love.

The reading from First Timothy makes the same point with a fabulous intertwining of the sublime and the ordinary: “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”  Yes, we chase after righteousness, we give our all to be a saint. But what does that mean?  Love, patience, and gentleness.

Looking for last week’s readings?  Reflection for Sunday, September 22.