23 February 2020

His Nature and His Name is Love: Homily for the Seventh Sunday of the Year, Roman Catholic Church of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, 23 February 2020

With Lent beginning in a few days’ time, today’s readings could not be more apt. We are going to focus a lot on our sins and shortcomings. But here today we are told that the concept of sin that we have is the wrong way round, if it concentrates on ourselves. The Lord came to say something loud and clear to us: “I do not want you to be guilty. I do not want you to be afraid of Me. I do not want you to doubt yourselves. I do not want you to be defeated. I do not want you to hold yourselves back from me. I want you to come into the Kingdom, and live in joy under the reign of God. I want you to live in that Kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.”

Where sin - and our sorrow for it - comes in is when, as St Paul puts it, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). He tells us today that, whatever we think we are, however we think we matter, however virtuous, valuable, or wise, “there is nothing to boast about in anything human”. When we realise this, that is when our conscience kicks in, and we take a good look at ourselves. Here we are, built to be The Temple for God that God intends to live inside me in (I Corinthians 3.16-23) - and we close it down, so that He can’t. St Paul tells us – “You keep tearing it down, but you are only tearing yourselves down. It is a sacred building that you are, but if God is denied access, you are no Temple at all. Without God, it is destroying you.” No wonder, when the Lord died upon the Cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two. This was not to destroy the Temple, but so that the Lord’s spirit when He breathed it out could enter into the Holy of Holies. It is the same with us. The Lord, with the same power at work as on the Cross, tears down the veil we have wrapped around our souls and our hearts, so that the Spirit of God may enter into the Temple of our soul and be the very life within us.

So what does the Lord prescribe? He does not give us tasks to fulfil, or challenges to earn His favour. He tells us, “Be holy, as I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19.1-2, 17-18). How on earth – even on earth as it is in heaven – can we be as holy as God? Does it mean, “be more religious”? Does it mean “be more spiritual”? Does it mean “say more prayers and devotions”? Does it mean “keep the Commandments, and the precepts of the Church?” Does it mean, “Follow the tried and tested rules that have been found to be wise since the days of the Disciples?” Well, yes, it means all of those things; and in every example of them, and among the many spiritualities and pathways for following in the footsteps that Christ has trodden ahead of us, so that we can trace the way and follow Him into His Kingdom, there is one that is suited for you. Do not persist with someone else’s way, if it makes you angry, or unhappy, bitter or resentful, or self-righteous, and judgemental of others. Do not think that you can proceed toward the Kingdom if you feel it is a miserable slog, or it weighs you down with a crushing sense of joyless duty. Yes, there will be difficulties, as we all know. There will be heartbreak and adversity. Yes, we may have to make great sacrifices. And yes, we will get things massively wrong and, in embarrassment, feel we wasted our opportunity with God and proved our efforts were futile. But the Lord asks us to trust Him, and follow Him on NO path that He has not walked before us.

I always think that the most dramatic moment in the Gospels is when the Lord is in Galilee, after He has chosen the Twelve Apostles, fed the Five Thousand, and been transfigured on the Mountain, and He sets His face to Jerusalem. After revealing Himself as the Lord God the Son to Peter and John and James, He comes down, casts out an unclean spirit from another father’s son, by the sheer force of the presence of God’s majesty; then He tells the disciples that the glory of God that they have seen means that as Son of Man He must be killed. St Luke tells us (Luke 9.51) that He then sets His face to go to Jerusalem, for the days are close for Him to be taken up - in other words, arrested to appear before Herod and Pilate, lifted up onto the Cross, and raised by His Father in the Tomb. The approach of Lent for us is the same as the Lord’s approach to Jerusalem. He tells us to take up our Cross daily to follow Him; but this is not with a face grim at the prospect of death and defeat, but reflecting the glory of God’s presence seen on the holy Mountain, and the utter majesty of setting a believer free of whatever oppresses the life and stands in the way of coming into God’s Kingdom. When you and I set our face to Jerusalem, we know there will be suffering and shame ahead, as we take up the Cross in the same way as He did, to fulfil our purpose as He fulfilled His. We know that it will be impossible, and we will be blamed for being hypocrites. “In this day and age”, as in many before it, we know that we will be mocked for being Catholics. We know that we will stumble and fail as disciples, and that our hopes of making ever better progress will be brought up short by our failures. But, seeing that He stumbled and fell on His way carrying the Cross, we persevere. For what drives us is not a sense of duty and being trapped in the cycle of sin that we are trying to get out of - It is the vision of Christ’s beauty on the Mountain. It is the prize of the Kingdom to which we are making our way with Him. It is the light in the Temple that flashes no longer in a single Temple in Jerusalem of old, but in the hearts, the joy, and the faithfulness of all those who are doing this out of love.

What is it to be holy like the Lord? Moses understood the first thing the Lord said about it – to have no hatred for anyone. And the second thing he heard was not to regard yourself as more virtuous, or better than anyone else, or closer to God, than someone who is failing. For if you fail one minute; I will fail the next. So there must be no self-righteousness about our virtues and another’s faults. There must be no vengeance for another person’s wrongdoing, and no grudges, however hurt we feel – only love for the neighbour as we love ourselves. For, as God was explaining to Moses, “That is what I am like, and I am the Lord”. When this same Lord came to us and took our flesh from the Virgin Mary to be born as one of us, He did not come to exact revenge, or to show us up. He came to attract us. The Gospel today (Matthew 5.38-48) shows us that Jesus’ mission was to break the endless churn of hatred and recrimination, vengeance and retaliation. He tells us to be people who give even if advantage is taken of us, to be more generous than people expect, and less inclined to be mistrustful when people seek our support. For this, the beauty and glory of God that the apostles saw on the mountain of Transfiguration was disfigured on the hill of Calvary. But it had to be borne, so that the only thing left would be forgiveness, and the only path still open was the way of all redeeming and all forgiving love to the Kingdom. “Love conquers all things”, the poet Virgil said, for it withstands and outlasts all that evil and sin can do. St Paul tells us, “Love always hopes, always perseveres, never fails.” When the power of wickedness has exhausted itself, Jesus observes, even the pagans are bonded by mutual love. This is what He tells us it is to be perfect – to forgive as we are forgiven, to love as we are loved, to persevere as the Lord has persevered with us for our sake, to be Temples not covered in veils so that His Light cannot pierce the gloom of guilt and self-pity, but so that each one of us is the new Temple, brilliant with his glory, reflecting a sighting of the Kingdom – yes even you and me. Each one of us is to become a Temple where the works of wickedness are cast out, where the world may know that here they may find healing and goodness to give hope and inspiration – yes, even in you and me - where the majesty of God is unmistakable, because there it is in love, mercy and joy.

When you turn to the Lord in sorrow and penitence this Lent, do not be downcast because you have failed to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. Rejoice, because He is taking pains, His own pains on the Cross, to make you holy as He is holy: not by accusation and inflicting the shame He bore away from us, but by the love that is His nature and His very Name.