Homily: “On Holiness”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time) Year A, 2017.

After today’s Mass, we break from our reading of the Sermon of the Mount as recorded by Saint Matthew. We have read four portions of this extended teaching, among the first words of Jesus. Lent this year begins later than most, yet not late enough to hear a final portion of the sermon, when Jesus teaches about the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field. There is also the teaching to seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, which is captured in the hymn we have been singing before the proclamation of the Gospel. So although we will not read this portion during Mass this year—for with Lent nine days away, the final Sunday before Lent is always devoted to the first of two readings of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the other being on the actual feast day of the Transfiguration during summer on August 6—through that hymn, we have been savoring at least an important aspect of it. The wonder of the liturgy is how many different ways we can experience the biblical revelation and indeed experience Jesus—through song, through all five of our senses, through prayer, all the ways we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

That word, holiness, is a primary theme we can find in each of our three readings. In a memorable and often quoted statement from Saint Paul: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” God’s Spirit is His loving holiness, and it can dwell nowhere except in hallowed, sacred space. The People of God are His temple, for it is in the People of God, incorporated into Jesus through Baptism, that the Holy Spirit dwells in a particularly focused way. Although God is present in all creatures, because through Him were all things made, human beings, as far as we know, are the only of God’s visible creatures that can be His temple. That is because while all creatures rejoice in the splendor of God’s radiance, human beings are the only ones that do so out of our choice, because we have free will. We are the only created beings, as far as we can tell, that pray, that contemplate, that reflect on God and choose to follow Him. 

As with so many aspects of the Christian life, we are tempted to hear those words from Saint Paul and think he is primarily speaking to us as individuals. He in fact is not. He is speaking corporately, that is, he is speaking to the Body. The Body is God’s temple. As Jesus is said to be the head of the Body, He is the central aspect of the temple. Now, we are not lost in this. We have a part, for we are each a member of the Body, and hence we are a member of the temple. We cannot save ourselves, but need the Body to do so; likewise, we cannot be holy by ourselves, but can only be holy through our membership in the holy community of God, His Church.

And we can only be holy because the head of the Body, Jesus, is the Lord. We hear in Leviticus: “I the Lord your God am holy.” Each time we hear the words “I am the Lord,” in those words, we must hear “holy.” These are old words, given to Moses; old words the People of God have been hearing and savoring for several thousand years. And this passage from Leviticus—incidentally, this is the only passage from Leviticus that we have in our three-year Sunday lectionary—presents God to us as providing ethical direction, to be sure. Reminiscent of the Ten Commandments in several respects, but with an important distinctive: that how we act, what we do, and what we choose not to do, is never merely to fulfill a dry ethical principle or law, but it is to worship a holy God. Everything we do is to be done out of worship to God, with that end in mind. Because to act, to do, to choose without a remembrance of God and His divine holiness is to forget God—and to forget God is to be separated from Him and be in sin.

Our God wants to be part of all of our choices, and because God is not distant from us, but part of our bodies through the Holy Spirit, and indeed because God is incarnate as a human being, a man—God understands our lives intimately; He understands and has compassion on our particular circumstances, our personalities, our temperaments. He is like us in all ways, save sin. And He knows that it is only through Him that we can do good. He knows that without love whatever we do is nothing. So he makes Himself available to us in the most intimate ways, and He constantly teaches us about love, about compassion, about how to find peace amid difficulty and suffering.

This is how to understand the difficult passages from the Sermon on the Mount today. For when we turn the other cheek, we are doing so because we remember God. When someone takes our coat, by giving our cloak we are remembering God. When we are forced to do something against our will—walking a mile, doing a task, whatever—by completing it in abundance we are remembering God. And when we love our enemy, as hard and as frustrating as it always is, in doing so we are remembering God; we are remembering Jesus who beheld His murderers from the cross, His murderers having nailed Him to the cross, and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It is less of a challenge to remember God in the good times, to remember Him when things are going well and we are filled with the consoling feelings of God’s grace. It is more of a challenge to remember God, to remember His holiness, in difficulty, in suffering, or when we are tormented by our enemies. To love an enemy is at least to pray for them. And the more we are able to love our enemies through prayer and then its fruits which always come from God, the more we are growing in love, growing in compassion, and growing in perfection, as our heavenly Father is perfect.