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Sunday Readings for Feb. 13, 2011 (6A)
By Fr. Joseph Pellegrino
Back in the olden days, when I was in college, I was a religious brother with the Salesians of St. John Bosco and studying to be a priest. I was given an additional assignment my senior year to be an assistant to the young men in their first year in the seminary. This position meant living with them, showing them what religious life was all about, helping them with their studies, and organizing everything in their lives from work to play.
Now some of these fellows were right out of high school. A few of them, though, were people who had already made a bit of a mark on the world. One was a professional banjo player who had performed on TV and in Carnegie Hall in New York City. Another, Rich Regan, was an accomplished guitarist who had worked with some well known individuals in Church music.
Towards the end of the school year I attended a Catholic education convention and came upon a booth selling Church music. On one of the CD’s there was a picture of the group including Rich Regan. I said to the man behind the booth, “That’s Rich Regan. I teach him.” There was another Salesian with me, who sarcastically asked me: “You teach him what?” I quickly responded, “I teach him how to live.”
I don’t think I fully understood my own answer back then. I think there was a great deal of plastic piety involved mixed in with an abundant measure of the triumphalism that many religious orders try to generate, favorably comparing their way of life to all others.
As I get older, and reflect on the successes and failures of my life as well as the hills and valleys that lay ahead of me, I am beginning to realize that now at 63 I know far less about life than in those wonderful idealistic days of my early twenties when I had everything figured out.
This last week I was reading a commentary about life based on today’s first reading from the Book of the Wisdom of Ben Sirach. The famous Jesuit, Walter Burghardt, focused in on the phrase, Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him. He goes on to state that to the ancient Hebrews life meant far more than the period between conception and death. Life was what proceeded from loving and obeying God. And death was not just that which followed the last breath on earth. To the ancient Hebrews, death was the rejection of the living God. “Seek the Lord and you will live,” the prophet Amos tells the people. He was not just speaking of eternity. He was speaking of living life to its fullest right now. And, conversely, isolate yourself from the love of the Lord, and you will join the living dead.
The point is that you and I are not genuinely alive because we are not medically dead. We are genuinely alive when our actions are full of love and understanding and intelligence and heart. To be genuinely alive, we must experience God. It is not enough to know about God. We must know Him, experience Him. We can only know Him and experience Him through love. The First Letter of John states, “Whoever does not love, does not know God.” We shall only be admitted into the eternal presence of God if we love Him, if we love Christ, above all else and if we love the human images of God and Christ at least as much as we love ourselves.
When we consider all things through the Love of Christ, we are alive in Christ. St. Paul puts it this way, “For me, living is Christ.” Then, as Paul says in Romans Eight, nothing in creation can separate us from the Love of Christ, not even physical death. For, as we heard in today’s second reading, ‘The eye has not seen, the ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.’ Yet God has revealed this wisdom to us through the Spirit. The Spirit scrutinizes all matters, even the deep things of God.”
Perhaps all this helps us understand the Gospel for this Sunday. The Sermon on the Mount is not about does and don’ts. It is not about limitations: how little must I do to slip by St. Peter at the gates of heaven. The Sermon on the Mount is about being fully alive in Jesus Christ. It is about nourishing the eternal life within us.
The Sermon on the Mount is demanding. It is just not enough to avoid external sins of great magnitude. It is not enough to avoid murder. It is not enough to avoid adultery. It is not enough to avoid taking false oaths.
We have to fight that within us that results in murder, namely our anger, our hatred, our grudges, our past hurts. Hatred, anger, and grudges destroy the life of Christ within us. We cannot be fully alive if we treasure our hatred more than we treasure the Love of God, Jesus Christ. We have to teach our children that there is never room for hatred in the world. And yes, they may be very upset with a teacher, a playmate or a family member and this upset may be justified by someone hurting them, but if we allow upset to turn into hatred we destroy ourselves, we destroy our ability to live genuine lives, the life of Jesus within us. We cannot love God and hate another person at the same time.
We have to fight that within us that destroys the love relationships we have committed ourselves to in life, whether this be your marriages, my priesthood, the love of your families, your ability to love others. We cannot be alive to Jesus Christ if within us we have a secret desire to replace His Love, sacrificial love, with our selfishness. We cannot be alive to Jesus Christ unless we are continually fighting to protect His Love from our lust. We have to teach our adolescents and teens the difference between love and sex. We have to teach them that people who have sacrificed their lives for each other make love and grow in the Love of Jesus Christ and are fully alive. And we have to teach them that people who desire to use the bodies of others for their own selfish needs have no concept of love and are dead to the Lord.
We have to fight that which is within us that results in lying and cheating and what the Gospel calls false oaths. We cannot be alive to Jesus Christ if we are dishonest, disingenuous and hypocritical. If we live in our own false little worlds where we attempt to create reality with our lies, we will be dead to Jesus Christ. The truth sets us free to be who we are rather than who we fabricate ourselves to be. We have to teach our children that Jesus Christ is the Truth and that living in our lies results in being dead to Christ. But trusting in the truth is trusting in Jesus, even when the truth might not be pleasant such as admitting that you broke something or did something wrong.
St. Leo the Great used to challenge the Christians of the fifth century, “Remember your dignity.” We also have to remember the dignity we have, the dignity of being fully alive with the life of Jesus Christ.
“Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” the first reading states, to which Jesus adds, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."
Today we pray for the strength to be fully alive, and the grace to choose the Life of Christ.