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