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Call to be holy

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All three readings today remind us of God’s call for everyone to be holy. “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” (first reading) “The temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (second reading) “So, be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (gospel)

Inspiring as it may be, the call to be holy and perfect like our heavenly Father is equally daunting. Is it really possible? How can we be holy and perfect like God? Yet this is what Jesus clearly tells us. So, what does he mean?

The first reading tells us the reason why God calls us to be holy – because he is holy. He is our Father and we are his children. “Like father, like son,” we often say. A true child bears the features of his father.

The gospel gives us an insight on what it means to be holy and perfect like God. For three Sundays now, we have been reading from the Sermon on the Mount which captures the central teachings of Jesus. The new Law which Christ brings does not do away with the old Law. On the contrary, the Law of Christ perfects the Law of Moses and raises its demands to the highest ideals of Christian life and virtue. Jesus illustrates this last Sunday with his teachings on anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Today, he continues with his teachings on retaliation and love of enemies and wraps up by saying, “So, be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To understand this statement, we need to read it in its context. The statement follows right after Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor and our enemies, so “that [we] may be children of [our] Heavenly Father who makes his sun shine on the good and bad.” 

Here we have the key to understanding what Jesus means by being perfect as the Father is perfect. As we have reflected last week, the law of Christ is summed up in the law of love. Today, Jesus tells us to love as the Heavenly Father loves – without discrimination. As it is the nature of the sun to shine on all, whether good or bad, so it is the nature of God to love all, whether worthy or unworthy, since God is love. To be perfect like the heavenly Father then is to love as God loves.

While this is clearly logical, in reality it is humanly unrealizable. We know how difficult it is to love our enemies or to forgive. As Alexander Pope writes, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” And he is perfectly right. To forgive is humanly impossible. It takes a power greater than our own to forgive, a power no less than God’s own.

The good news is that God has given us this power to love. The second reading reminds us that we are God’s temple because he has sent his Spirit not only to dwell in us, but also to empower us. Paul tells us that “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” (Rm 5:5) Thus through the Holy Spirit living in us, we can truly love with God’s own love.

We see this power at work in people who allow the Spirit to act in them, like the saints. St. Stephen died in the hands of his persecutors while forgiving them and praying that God would spare them. Mother Teresa spent her life serving the unlovable and caring for those who were rejected even by their own families. And we can go on with an endless list of people doing wonders by the power of God’s love.

God calls us to be holy by loving as he loves. We do not have to do extraordinary things to love as God loves. St Therese of Lisieux had a great desire to be a great saint, like the martyrs and the missionaries. Later, she realized that she could be a saint without leaving the convent by trusting God like a little child and doing every little thing for love of him. She attained the heights of holiness by living what she called the spirituality of the Little Way.

When we do even the littlest thing with love, we shine with God’s own splendor, the splendor of his love. For God is love.*

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