19 February 2017

Homily - 19 February 2017 - What does it mean for us to imitate the perfection of God the Father?

The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

It has often been said that we are not called to perfection because, as humans with a fallen nature, we cannot be perfect. Such a claim, of course, stands in stark contradiction to the words of Our Lord who today commands us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We know that Jesus never commands us to do what is impossible, so what does it mean for us to imitate the perfection of God the Father?

The medieval theologian Richard of St. Victor teaches us, “nothing is more perfect than charity,” charity being a sort of technical word for the love that is of God. Indeed, Richard also rightly says, “Where there is fullness of all goodness, true and supreme charity cannot be lacking.”[1] We can rightly say, then, that the perfection of God is the perfection of love and it is to this perfection that the Lord Jesus calls us.

We see this understanding of the perfection of God within the writings of the Beloved Disciple, who has left us the true insight that “God is love” (I John 4:8). Love, of course, is more than a mere sentiment or an emotion that comes and goes like the waxing and waning of the moon. Love, if it is sincere and authentic, is more constant than an emotion. Love is a desire for the good of another person, together with a willingness to bring it about, even at my own expense.

Looking upon us in our fallen humanity, God the Father loved us. He sent his Son to die willingly upon the Cross so that we might attain salvation, the highest of all possible goods. Knowing that man has no greater love than to give his life for his friends, God desired our good enough to bring it about at his own expense (cf. John 15:13). As Saint Paul says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

If the perfection of our heavenly Father consists in the perfection of love, then we are called – indeed, commanded – to likewise be perfect in love. This is why Saint John says, “In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world” (I John 4:17). This is why the Lord Jesus repeatedly tells us “the greatest and first commandment” is that we “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

Writing to a community of Poor Clares about the perfection of life, Saint Bonaventure reminded them that

To love [God] because it pleases you to give him your love or because the world recommends, or the flesh suggests such love, is not the love God asks. If for the love of Jesus Christ you would be prepared gallantly and lovingly to die in His service, should occasion arise, then most certainly do you love Him with your whole soul. If you do not love Him for His own sake or would find it difficult to die for His sake, your love is imperfect. It is not the love of your whole soul that you offer Him. Conform your will in all things to the Divine Will. This is what God demands. Do this, and the love wherewith you love God will be the love of your whole soul.[2]

If we are to arrive at the perfection of our love, we must not only love God perfectly by loving him for his own sake, we must also keep the second commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The Lord God told Moses that loving our neighbor consists in not bearing hatred for our brother or sister in our heart, in taking no revenge, and in cherishing no grudge against another (cf. Leviticus 19:17-18). King David sang of the Lord’s love for us when he said, “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes” (Psalm 103:8). If this is how the perfection of the Lord’s love is made known to us, then the perfection of our love must be shown to others in the same way because, as Jesus says to us, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34). For this reason Saint John says, “Whoever keeps the word of Christ, the love of God is truly perfected in him” (I John 2:5).

We know that each of us fails in loving one another as Jesus loves us but, as Pope Francis reminds us, “our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.” [3] We can take comfort in the honest confession of Saint Paul: “Not that I have already obtained this, or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12-13). The Lord indeed knows our weakness and our sinfulness, yet still he calls us to the perfection of love.

As we seek to perfect our love for God and neighbor, we should make an honest examination of our consciences before we enter the season of Lent. By doing so, we can make better use of this coming “favourable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.”[4] If we use this time well, we can be perfected in love and so become holy, as the Lord commands.

Let us, then, strive with Mother Marianne to “creep down into the heart of Jesus” so that his love might be our own. As we seek to conform our hearts ever more closely to the heart of Jesus, let us remember these words of Father Damien, “To have begun is nothing, the hard thing is to persevere. This is the work of God’s grace. That grace will never fail me, I am sure of that, provided I do not resist it.” Amen.

[1] Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, 3.2.
[2] Saint Bonaventure, On the Perfection of Life, 87.
[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 121.
[4] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2017, 3.

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