24 April 2016

Our most difficult task

5th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Of all the difficult tasks our Lord leaves us to accomplish in his name, one stands out as the most difficult. He says to his disciples, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our Lord commands us to love one another in his name. Given that he also commands us to forgive those who offend us; to show mercy to and pray for our persecutors; to stand ready to give public witness to the faith; and to give our lives as a sacrifice for another – how is his command to love another the most difficult task he leaves us to accomplish? Loving one another is not a discreet act, a one-time deal where we rouse ourselves into action and obey his command start to finish in a single movement. Forgiving a sinner can be done in a single act. Showing mercy, praying for our enemies can be done in a single act. Dying for love of another is certainly a singular, unrepeatable act. And even if we must repeatedly forgive, show mercy, and pray for our enemies, we do so individually, serially. But loving one another cannot be accomplished so easily. Loving one another is an on-going, life-long, habit of living with your brothers and sisters in the same sort of love that Christ himself shows us. The same sort of love that leads him to the cross. . .for your sake and mine.

And what sort of love is this. . .exactly? Pope Benedict XVI writes, “By dying on the Cross. . .Jesus 'gave up his Spirit', anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would make after his Resurrection. . .The Spirit. . .is that interior power which harmonizes [believers'] hearts with Christ's heart and moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down to wash the feet of the disciples and above all when he gave his life for us” (DCE 19). To obey our Lord and love as he commands, we must set aside whatever it is that prevents us from washing our brothers' and sisters' feet; whatever forbids us from serving them as the least among the Lord's children; whatever stops us from seeing in them the Christ who died for love of us all. Jesus isn't talking here about the casual acts of charity that we all do everyday. . .a dollar for the homeless guy on West End and Veterans; a bag of shirts to St. Vincent de Paul; or the extra $5 at the register for Habitat for Humanity. He's talking about the extraordinary transformation of our hearts, minds, bodies, souls, and all our strength into a life-long habit of self-sacrifice for the salvation of the world. IOW, to be and do who and what he himself is and does for us. 
Without any doubt – this is our most difficult task. One we are well-tempted to avoid. One that I myself am well-practiced at avoiding. For example. My mom is a neat freak. Her house is as organized and as clean as any Swiss museum. When my younger brother and I were in our teens, mom insisted that we make our beds before heading to school. We hated making our beds. An utterly pointless chore! So, what did we do? We half-made the beds – lumpy, crooked, creased. Mom would see the beds, sigh dramatically, and then make them up for us. Worked every time. Because of this laziness, I never learned to make a bed. I never learned to fold a fitted sheet or how to do a sharp hospital corner. To this day, my bed is a more like a pile of laundry than a proper bed. When we avoid loving one another, when we succumb to the temptation to let others love for us, or when we love thoughtlessly, causally, we deprive ourselves of the practice we need to grow in holiness, to mature into truly self-sacrificing witnesses of God's mercy. Our Lord demands of us that we take up his cross and die to self, die to selfishness, and rise again to a new life in perfect charity and peace. Christ gives us all the help we need. However, he will not make our beds for us.

Lest we fall into despair at the difficulty of our task, remember John's vision, “[God] will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. . .The One who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.'” We never love alone, forgive alone, show mercy alone, heal, pray, sacrifice, or hope alone. He is always with us. He is always the source of the love and mercy we share among ourselves. His demands on our generosity are his due b/c we can only be generous at all b/c he was first abundantly generous with us, giving us his life on the cross and eternal life through his empty tomb. As we approach the birth of the Church on Pentecost, give thanks and praise to our Father for the gift of His Son, for the gift of His Spirit, and practice-practice-practice the difficult task of loving one another. He will always help us. But He will do it for us. He will not do it without us.

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