“Peace cannot exist without a strong and passionate love.”
This Sunday’s gospel (Lk. 12:49-53) presents us with this truth for our consideration. Christ speaks here as with a sense of urgency! I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! What Christ brings to us is not a theory or a proposal but the very fire of God’s love! This fire has a name: compassion. At one point in Matthew’s gospel we are told that when Christ looked out on the vast crowd he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And how great is our Lord’s anguish until it is accomplished! Our Lord burns with the love of the Father which is the love of compassion!
Unfortunately, in our world, this love can be obscured and even suffocated. The violence and indifference of our world can suffocate compassion. Even we disciples can suffocate compassion when we turn from the invitation of our Lord to follow solely our own priorities and interests. It is easy to resign ourselves to the world thinking, “well, that is just the way things are…”
But, the Lord continually comes to us and says, I have come to set the earth on fire… Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. True compassion, when lived and witnessed, shocks us because – if even just for a moment – it forces our gaze away from ourselves and toward another.
This is the divisive peace that our Lord brings to the earth. The peace of the gospel is not the world’s peace – peace as a nice, reassuring intimacy and justification for isolation. Christ did not come to the earth to defend the peace of our little self-centeredness; rather, he came to hold forth the call of love for others, for compassion. Christ did not come to defend the peace of the rich man who did not notice the starving Lazarus at his door, nor did Christ come to defend the peace of the priest and the Levite who avoided the man lying helpless on the road. This is not peace. Rather it is avarice, meanness, insensitivity and just plain sin.
Peace cannot exist without strong and compassionate love!
The peace that Christ brings is divisive! It divides us from our self-centeredness. It divides us from our insensitivity to the needs of others. It divides us from attitudes of resignation and withdrawal. It shifts our focus and our heart toward the other in his or her need. It will not allow us to resign ourselves to a comfortable, yet ultimately life-denying, sense of isolation.
The fire that Christ brings to earth is the fire of God’s compassion. It continues to burn and it continues to purify!
Lord, enkindle in us the fire of your love!
(Some thoughts in this reflection are borrowed from Bp. Vincenzo Paglia’s reflection on this Sunday’s readings.)
In order to love one must be free. Love can neither be forced nor contrived. For love to be authentic it must be freely given and freely received. This is love’s dynamic and yet, just as love depends on freedom love, itself, makes us freer. In John’s first letter we are told that perfect love casts out all fear. Love creates true freedom. In this Sunday’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians we are reminded of this salvific fact. Christ, out of love, took on our sinfulness, “obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.”
In Christ we have been set free but this is not a freedom to do whatever we please. This is not authentic freedom rather; it is a misuse of freedom. The freedom we gain from the love of Christ is the freedom to enter more deeply into honest relationship with God and with one another. This freedom begins in the very knowledge that in Christ we are loved beyond measure – each and every one of us.
The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were many but at the heart of these sins was the abuse of relationship, particularly the abuse of the visitor, the stranger. This sin is brought out all the more in contrast to the passage directly preceding that about Sodom and Gomorrah (last Sunday’s readings). In last Sunday’s passage Abraham welcomes the three visitors, he honors his relationship with them and he treats it as a sacred reality to be respected. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah, on the other hand, do not. Their sin is great and grave.
It is easy to judge Sodom and Gomorrah and hold ourselves superior but I wonder if one of the factors of their sinfulness is a factor also present in our own day and time – a life lived in distraction. John Garvey, in an article he wrote entitled, “A Tree Full of Monkeys: Why the Soul Needs Silence” makes a good observation:
It takes effort to be clear about the moment we are in. It requires taking time … We need, through practice, to be made aware of what is wrong about ordinary waking circumstances; it takes effort to do this … it matters, especially in a time when distraction and ideological reinforcement matter more to the culture than sober clarity does. This inattention disrupts our lives at every level – religious, political, aesthetic … Prayer (silence) can begin to make us feel what is directly underfoot, can help us begin to understand where we really are, in the presence of the sacred…
A life of distraction, a life of inattention inhibits freedom and therefore hinders growth in true love and honest relationship and (if left unchecked both in lives of individuals and of society) can be a contributing factor in the abuse of others – those who are indeed our brothers and our sisters. For this we will each have to give an accounting before the judgment seat of God. To love, one must be free. A distracted life is not a free life.
It is worthy to note that in this Sunday’s gospel (Lk. 11:1-13), after our Lord gives us the Our Father, he goes on to further explain prayer by use of three images specifically based in relationship and attentiveness – the attention of one friend to another in need, the willingness to trust in relationship with God and therefore to ask, to seek, to knock and the attentive love of a father to the needs of a child. Let us not fool ourselves. Love can easily and sadly be compromised on all levels and in many ways. The mind can easily become a “tree full of monkeys”. The soul needs silence and prayer not just for sanity but also to safeguard freedom, honest relationship and attentiveness to the needs of the other.
The disciples’ request, “teach us to pray” is another way of asking, “teach us how to love.”
|Temptation of Christ by Eric Armusik|
In the Gospel story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Lk. 4:1-13) we are given a dramatic portrayal of the movement of temptation in life and also the corrosiveness of sin.
Luke writes that it was only after Jesus had fasted for forty days and he was in a weakened state that the devil came to tempt him. This is worthy of note. Temptation insinuates itself into the folds of our weaknesses and our fragility and it is from there that it seeks to carry out its destructive work. Do we carry fears within us? Then grasp for power at all costs! Are we insecure in our understanding of self? Then run after the approval of others! Do we covet? Then deny the dignity and rights of the other person! Do we envy? Then put down the other person! Do we doubt? Then shut out the love of God and other persons!
All temptations insinuate themselves into the folds of our weaknesses and frailties. Part of the spiritual journey is coming to recognize and accept this. A very holy and honest priest once told me that at one point in his faith journey he came to the realization that he was capable of about every sinful act imaginable. The truth is, we all are. We mark ourselves with ashes at the beginning of Lent for a number of reasons – one of these being the recognition and acceptance of our own weakness. Holiness is not achieved by denying or masking weakness. Authentic holiness comes about only through accepted weakness being transformed by God’s grace.
In my own spiritual journey as well as in my experience as a confessor I have come to the awareness that one of the most corrosive effects of sin in our lives is that sin plants a kernel of doubt in our thoughts that can easily and quickly fester into a debilitating and ever-present accusation. The accusation comes in a variety of voices: “Who do you think you are?”, “If people only knew the real you.”, “How can you believe that you are worth love?”, “Do you think God loves you or even cares?” Throughout the temptation scene in today’s gospel the devil continually tries to plant this kernel of accusation in the thought of our Lord. If you are the Son of God… Yet, Christ does not sin, he does not turn away from the Father and therefore the devil is unable to plant this kernel of doubt and despair. Christ triumphs over the devil in the desert not by his own strength and self-sufficiency but rather by clinging in obedience to the will and love of the Father and by calling to mind the Word of God and being strengthened by that Word.
The answer to both the insinuation of temptation as well as the corrosiveness of sin is in essence the same – to trust and truly hold to the reality that we are sons and daughters of God and that God is nothing other than love. God does not disdain us in our weakness. The truth is that his love and grace are all the more present. The Christian sense of being perfect is not that we have it all together but rather that we are being perfected in and through our cooperation with God’s love and mercy. In the face of the accusation of sin we remember that we are indeed loved by God and if we cannot remember then God will remember for us. I have seen this first-hand as a confessor. This is one of deep truths of the sacrament of reconciliation. When we have forgotten who we are through sin, God (in his mercy) remembers for us. God, in his forgiveness, calls forth the truth that we are his sons and daughters.
We all know how temptation insinuates itself into our weaknesses and we know how sin accuses us. This Lent and Easter may we hopefully come to know in a deeper way how God’s love and the truth of our being his sons and daughters sets us free.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a man who is a convert to Catholicism. I asked him what was it that brought him into the faith. He replied that when he was a young man the company he worked for got a job to do some restoration work in a Catholic Church. When he and his boss met with the parish priest to go over the work needing to be done he was struck by the sight of the priest genuflecting before the tabernacle as they entered the church. In that simple action he realized that God was present in that church. This awareness remained with him and grew and it began the process and journey that eventually led him into the Catholic Church. He told me, “Prior to that I had a notion that God was everywhere yet not really present. In the Catholic Church I have found God truly present.”
God truly present! This is the Catholic intuition. It is what underlies our understanding of the sacraments, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, the Catholic approach to prayer, mysticism and (in fact) the entire life of discipleship. The understanding of God truly present is also foundational in our belief in the communion of saints which we just celebrated on November 1st with the Feast of All Saints. It is not just that saints were good men and women who did good deeds (worthy of being nominated for CNN’s annual “Heroes” celebration). God became truly present to the world in the lives of the saints and these men and women became truly transformed and reflective of the presence of God. (The Catholic understanding of relics is rooted in this reality.) The saints are, in fact, quite subversive because their very lives witness against a materialistic-only view of reality as well as a vague sense of the Divine that is content in keeping God removed and far off. These are both tendencies seeking to be persuasive in our world today, yet the saints witness to something both different and real – the incarnational and sacramental truth of the Christian faith.
God truly present as opposed to a vague sense of God who is everywhere but really nowhere.
This awareness is not some “add-on” nor corruption of true Christianity. It is the essence of true Christianity and it is grounded in creation through the Word of God and the very incarnation of the Word of God. Throughout the whole of Scripture we find this awareness being revealed and proclaimed.
In today’s gospel (Mk. 12:28b-34) Jesus (who is the Word made flesh) specifically holds together the love of God and the love of neighbor in such a unity that the two cannot be separated. Love, if it is to be true, must be present and real. In the first Letter of John we have a developed reflection on this twofold commandment to love God and neighbor: Those who say, “I love God”, and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars: for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 Jn. 4:20-21)
Love of God and neighbor, if it is to be real, must be present. And where true love is, present is God. The saints reveal this truth to us – not just through what they did but through their very lives transformed and reflective of a God not content to remain removed but continually seeking to be present.