Whatever Happened to Holiness? How Can We Ever be Perfect?
I will date myself. I am an aging, former hippie whose search for truth and the meaning of life led me back to the Cross and the faith of my childhood. I still love to listen to the old songs of some of the great artists of my generation. One of my favorites was Joni Mitchell. Whenever I think about the word holiness, I recall her song entitled "Woman of Heart and Mind". It contained this probing question - "All this talk about holiness now It must be the start of the latest style Is it all books and words Or do you really feel it? Do you really laugh? Do you really care? Do you really smile When you smile?" Holiness is very human. It is simply redeemed by grace and thereby made more perfectly human.
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.
CHESAPEAKE, VA. (Catholic Online) - In Matthews Gospel we read these challenging words of Jesus:
"Jesus said to his disciples: "You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust."
"For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (St. Matthew 5: 43-48)
How can we be 'Perfect'? What does it mean? What does holiness mean? Can we all become holy?
I will date myself. I am an aging, former hippie whose search for truth and the meaning of life led me back to the Cross and the faith of my childhood. I still love to listen to the old songs of some of the great artists of my generation. One of my favorites was Joni Mitchell.
Whenever I think about the word holiness, I recall her song entitled "Woman of Heart and Mind". It contained this probing question:
"All this talk about holiness now It must be the start of the latest style Is it all books and words Or do you really feel it? Do you really laugh? Do you really care? Do you really smile When you smile?"
Holiness is very human. It is simply redeemed by grace and thereby made more perfectly human.
The admonition from Jesus is clear and undeniable. It is repeated in other Gospel accounts and developed in several New Testament Epistles. I suggest that our problem with understanding and responding to the passage is twofold; we misunderstand the meaning of the word and we have a limited our comprehension of the goal of the fullness of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The One through whom we were first created, is re-creating us now through His grace,- as cooperate and choose to live our lives now in Him. Yet, we do not yet perceive who we are to become.
The beloved disciple John explained in his first letter, "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. " (1 John 3:2)
We are called even now to become like Him. We are called to be "perfected" in Him.
It helps to consider the word translated perfect in English in order to grasp the call to participation contained in this invitation to conversion. Filtering this word through linguistic limitations, we might not even try to respond to the invitation and miss the grace of conversion needed to actually live the call to love.
In Greek, the word is telios. Let me explain.
Telios refers to something being completed, brought to its full purpose, potential and intended end and vocation. For example, in the world of objects, a hammer is telios or perfect when it is hammering a nail. In the world of subjects, things are telios or perfect when they are fulfilling their nature.
We were created in the Image of the God of Love who made us for love. In Jesus Christ, we are now "capacitated", to use a term of the early father and Bishop Ireneaus of Lyons, made capable by the grace of His Redemption, of loving as God Himself loves.
In fact we are called to love others with God's very love. "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 Jn 4:16).
As we respond to this invitation with both our words and our actions, as we learn cooperate with grace, we are completed or perfected in Jesus Christ.
In our Western minds, we limit this word "perfect" - and can fail to grasp its promise and potential. We equate it with being sinless, in the sense of never again making a wrong choice. We think of it mathematically - rather than relationally.
However, the concept is also applied to Jesus by the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews in chapter 5 verses 8-9: "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him."
Jesus was made perfect through what He suffered? Yet, Jesus was without sin. How then was He perfected?
He came into the world to redeem, to transform us all by a life, and a death, of perfect sacrificial love. He fulfilled His purpose when He presided over the new creation from the Altar of that Cross and robbed death of its victory.
We are called to be perfected by cooperating with His Grace - to love as He loved, to love with His love. By so doing we prove also ourselves to be Sons and daughters of His Father, who, in Him, has become Our Father.
When we follow Jesus -in both word and deed - a dynamic process happens within us, a process of ever deepening conversion and transformation. We change. We are converted.
We actually "participate in the Divine Nature", the Apostle Peter tells us - beginning right now. (2 Peter 1:4). We are made complete, perfected in charity, by grace and our continued cooperation with grace.
We begin to change into the very new men and women that Jesus Christ has now capacitated us to become.
We fulfill our purpose of carrying on His life of redemptive love by loving even those who do not love us. We also continue His great work of Redemption, which He will complete upon His return. Only then will the entire creation be reconstituted by love, made perfect, and handed back to the Father as a perfect gift of love.
So, let us be perfected, as the Heavenly Father is perfect, by the grace given to us through the Son and in the Spirit. Let us respond to the call to holiness, no matter what our state in life or vocation, with an honest acknowledgement of our utter inability to make progress on our own efforts - but a sincere desire to continue to grow in the Lord by cooperating with His grace.
The Holy Spirit intends to make us saints.
We are meant to progress in the Christian life. That doe snot happen by our own strength of will. To the contrary, it happens as empty ourselves of ourselves, in order to be filled up with His Divine Life. The Apostle Paul understood his own inadequacies.
He called himself the chief among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners." He called himself the foremost because he believed that he was. He did not have a bad self image. He understood the path to holiness and knew the gift of grace.
He also opened up for us a key to unlocking the mystery in this acclamation from his letter to the Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
We follow the same Risen Jesus and are invited to embrace the same way of life. I conclude with an excerpt from an explanation of Christian holiness in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which may be helpful.
2012 "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him . . . For those whom he fore knew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."
2013 "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity."All are called to holiness: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ's gift, so that doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints.
2014 Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called "mystical" because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments - "the holy mysteries" - and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.
2015 The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.(Gregory of Nyssa)
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