What are we to make, brothers and sisters, of these uncompromising commands from our readings today. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, and especially, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”?
Firstly, we must say that they are commandments. The language is uncompromising here: “You shall be holy….”, “You shall love your neighbor…” and “Be perfect, therefore…”. No room for misunderstanding here. These are not options, for those who feel like following them. They are commands, from God himself, to us, to you and me. Not just to me, or to Deacon Louis, but to each of you as well.
Secondly, these commandments are, first and foremost, addressed to a community, such as a church, or a parish. The you and the your here are plural. Much as St Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians in our second reading: “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” is intended for the plural “you”. As a community of baptized Christians, we are all called, summoned, to give a communal witness to holiness of life. These readings today, brothers and sisters, are addressed to all of us, not just the “holy Joes and Joannas “amongst us. In Lent, which starts next week, we are all called to live holier lives. To say to ourselves, “well, I’ll leave that to my wife, or husband, or the priest, or the deacon, or that family or that individual over there, to do the holy bit. I’m not going to make any effort to put myself out to do anything extra”, is to betray the rest of us, your brothers and sisters in Christ. It is to let the side down. Our communal witness to holiness and love will suffer by our failure to grasp that we are all, all of us, without exception, summoned to moral perfection, to holiness of life. A few of us cannot do the “heavy lifting” for everyone.)
The sacrament of reconciliation is not set up just to enable me to slip off in secret to confess my private sins to God. I can do that at home if it comes to that. The priest is there in the sacrament of confession in a two-fold capacity. He represents God, in so much as he receives the detailed confession of your sins and conveys God’s absolution to you. But he is also there as a representative of the Christian community, which suffers because of each person’s sins. We cannot say that “my sins are my own affair; they only do spiritual harm to me”. No, to the extent that you are weakened spiritually by your sin, then we also, your brothers and sisters, are weakened in our witness before the world. Because we are bound together in our baptism, by ties of faith, hope and love, failure on the part of one of us, is a failure on the part of all of us. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans: ”we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12: 5) (and he repeats that in his first letter to the Corinthians: ”The body does not consist of one member, but of many … no individual member can say to another :”I don’t need you”… if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12: 14, 21, 26)). Each of us is called to carry our own weight in living out the communal call to holiness.
The third thing to say about these so-called “impossible” demands in our readings today is this. The word for “perfect” in the phrase “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in our gospel is the Greek word “teleios”, and it does not mean sinlessness, but “moving towards a goal” , “having a purpose in life” to which we are headed . For us Catholic Christians, that goal, that purpose is, or it should be, spiritual maturity in Christ. As St Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians: “until we all come …to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4: 13). Note again the word “all”, “until all come”. This is a task for every member of the Christian community. In the matters of faith and spirituality, to quote again from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine’ (v.14). It is sad but true that, whilst we mature physically, mentally and emotionally throughout our lives, most do not seek to grow and mature spiritually. That does not seem to feature in most people’s vision and purpose for their lives. What about you, brothers and sisters, what about me? Are we eager for the things of God, the things of faith? Do we put into practice the words of Jesus: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness” (Matthew 6: 33)?
If we have not, truth to tell, been as zealous to improve and mature our spiritual lives, as we are for other areas, then the season of Lent comes along again this coming week to call us, communally and individually, to begin, or begin again, to bring our spiritual lives up to par with the rest of our lives. Graces are available to us in abundance during this season to build up our spiritual “bank accounts”. There is a parish Lenten mission in March , there is the weekly practice of Stations of the Cross on Fridays, together with the opportunity to practice a bit of fasting with our “Poor Man’s Supper” just before the Stations of the Cross , or on Tuesday evenings after Mass at St Clare’s. The sacrament of reconciliation is available throughout Lent, as well as at our penitential service on the Wednesday evening of the parish mission. There are opportunities to spend some time in adoration and quiet prayer on Monday and Thursday afternoons at St Philip’s. There is bible study available on Monday evenings after Mass at St Philip’s. And that is just what is available at St Philip’s and St Clare’s. Plenty of other parishes have their own grace-opportunities, made available to the whole Catholic Christian body. To say nothing of what is available on the internet in terms of Lenten devotions and teachings. Let no one say, “I didn’t know” or “I don’t have the means to grow spiritually”.
As I read on one church sign a while ago, “HERE IS THE CH…CH. WHAT IS MISSING? U R.“