18 February 2020

Homily - 16 February 2020 - The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, the Lord Jesus gives us a stern warning: “I tell you,” he says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). When we hear these words in the presence of Saints Damien and Marianne, we might begin to feel as if there is no hope for us; is it possible for us to do what they did, to love as they loved? The answer, of course, is yes; it is possible for us to do what they did and to love as they loved, although in different ways. Indeed, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall life” (Sirach 15:15).

We know that “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.”[1] This is why the manner in which we live this life is so important, for by it we make our decision for “life or death, good or evil,” which is to say either for or against Christ Jesus (Sirach 15:17). “With death, our life-choice becomes definitive – our life stands before the judge.”[2] This choice can have a multiplicity of forms because each of our lives is different, but the fundamental choice before us remains the same.

There are some people whose lives are so filled with wickedness that any desire for truth and love has been completely snuffed out within them. This is what is meant by the word, “hell,” “the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”[3] But there are also people whose lives are so imbued with love and purity – those like Father Damien and Mother Marianne - that their love for God flows readily to their neighbor. Such holiness of life clearly marks one for heaven, “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings.”[4] But such people are not common, are they? What, then, of the rest of us, who want to live holy lives, who want to keep the commandments, but who fail so often?

We can presume that in the majority of people 
there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil – much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains, and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.[5] 
What, then, becomes of these souls who are open to, and are desirous of, truth and love, but whose lives are also marked with sin? “Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?”[6]

It would go against God’s mercy to cast them into hell, but it would go against his justice for them to enter heaven straight away with such stains covering their souls. The answer is clear: they must first be purified. Thus, we hear the Savior’s warning that “you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:26). This process of purification is called purgatory for it is a purgation, a cleansing, of the soul.

We speak of the pain of the fire of Purgatory because Saint Paul tells us we will be saved, “but only as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:15). What is this fire, if not the fire of divine love? The Lord’s “burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it, and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body.”[7] This fire is the encounter with Christ Jesus himself, who is both Judge and Savior, and this encounter with him is the moment of judgment.

Many today are afraid of the notion of judgment “because they confuse judgment with petty calculation and give more room to fear than to a loving trust.”[8] They do not realize that

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms us and frees us, allowing us to become fully ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses.  Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is also a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally of ourselves and totally of God. In this way the interrelation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[9]

In all of this, we see that “before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sirach 15:17). If we want our righteousness to surpass that of the scribes and the pharisees, if we want to enter heaven, then we must do better than them. They kept the commandments on the outside, but not in their hearts; we must do both.

We cannot forget that, in Jesus, every commandment “becomes true as a requirement of love, and all join in a single commandment: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. “Love is the fulfilling of the Law”, St Paul writes (Romans 13:10).[10] Dear brothers and sisters, if we keep the commandments out of love for God and neighbor, then one day we, too, like Saints Damien and Marianne, will be plunged into the ocean of infinite love and be “simply overwhelmed with joy.”[11] Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 45.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033.
[4] Ibid., 1024.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 46.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 229.
[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through the Year, Second Edition. Graham Harrison, trans. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2007), 77.
[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[10] Ibid., Angelus Address, 13 February 2011
[11] Ibid., Spe Salvi, 12.

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