“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.”
I must have been in grade school at a Lenten service with my classmates, when I first heard this Gospel reading. I remember finding freedom in these words and a desire to unburden my own heart of playground politics. I also recall hoping that these words would be enough to soften the heart of my young “nemesis” who was formidable, and, most likely, sitting a few pews ahead of me. And for an afternoon, I’m pretty sure they were.
Loving for the sake of love is not easy. Its point of reference is not the affections of the small self. Love, in the Gospel sense, agape, arises from a place of compassionate understanding, an openness and receptivity to the other and her circumstances. It is difficult, in the absence of Grace, to access this place of compassion for someone who maligns or wishes to undermine you in some way. But therein lies the greatness of this teaching and a life in relationship with God.
A life of Grace shifts our center of gravity from selfish egotism to the foundational relationship that satisfies the deepest longings of our hearts. When we know who we are, that we are loved, and belong to something greater than the small confines of our egos, our frame of reference shifts. We see more. We are more. We recognize that the ill-intentions of perceived “enemies” are in fact symptomatic of a deeper illness in their own hearts. We are more inclined to respond with compassion to life’s more challenging moments.
I can’t help but try to imagine the moment when Jesus first shared this teaching. What a moment in history – it’s value, inexhaustible.
“Incurvatus in se” is a Latin phrase coined by St. Augustine which literally translates to “being curved inward on the self.” It denotes a spiritual deformity that prevents the individual from seeing beyond his/her selfish inclinations. It is “the way that leads to death” because it isolates the individual from the context of loving interrelatedness which we are called to live. It is this narcissistic frame of mind, this “incurvatus in se” that Christ seeks to heal through his call to repentance and relationship with God.
We are invited to empty ourselves of ourselves, of the selfishness that drives us, and open ourselves to others, to the intimacy that God makes available in Christ. Today’s readings is not the first time the Teacher calls particular attention to the intention behind our actions. In the readings last week, he spoke of almsgiving, warning against the temptation to use the practice to gain favor in the eyes of others. The truth is we are all, to a lesser or greater extent, motivated by selfish gain. It’s our default setting.
In today’s readings, we hear Jesus calling for a new way to approach religious practice. It is not enough to follow the letter of the law, but we must take it into our hearts. We are called to examine our hearts and remove the root emotions and selfish intentions that result in wrong-doing. It does not suffice to simply abstain from wrong. We must do the work. We are challenged to uproot patterns of thought and behavior that prevent us from giving of ourselves to others in love. Through the Lord’s Grace we can reprogram those default settings and align our intentions with a deeper Truth.
Pray with the joy and confidence of knowing your prayers are heard and answered.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Allow the answer to be what it is: an expression of God’s merciful love for you.
“Which of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask.”
The answers may not always align with our timing, or even with what we have requested. Still, trust in the Wisdom that receives your heart’s approach with infinite tenderness. Your “heavenly Father knows your needs before you ask…”
“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.”
Forgive and love with the resolve and perseverance that was modeled for us by our Lord and Teacher.
Thomas Aquinas said it best: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
I marvel at the love and resolve it took, on the part of Jesus, to move through the resistance he encountered in his ministry. There were those who openly embraced the message, going so far as to completely reorder their lives to follow Jesus. And there were others who resisted. They were not only indifferent, but openly hostile. The Lord’s focus was elsewhere. It was with his purpose and his relationship to the Father. He demonstrated compassion, eloquence, erudition, and a remarkable ability to deflect provocation when openly confronted by his opponents. Still, we can assume, given his humanity and compassionate heart, that there must have been a few silent Gethsemanes before the familiar night in the garden.
Jesus did not, however, withdraw, retire, or dial back his message. Quite the contrary, he continued to teach. He knew, from the beginning, that there would be those who would accept the invitation to the possibility of a new life and those who would resist. How did he do it?
The Gospels tell us Jesus made the time to pray and, having replenished himself in the Father’s presence, moved forward in love. He did not resist the stones along the path. Instead, he loved his way through opposition. So many stories in the Gospels are of him bringing understanding to the skeptical and confused. And his response to the most heartrending measure taken to silence him was a prayer of love and forgiveness on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us is seldom an easy task. The grudges we keep sit in our hearts like boulders, casting shadows in areas of our lives unrelated to the events that haunt us. With a willing heart and the Grace that is available to us all this Lenten season, we can bring healing to the places in our hearts in most need of forgiveness and, in turn, extend that forgiveness to others. In doing so, we transform our disappointments into openings for Grace.
“Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful…So shall my word be, that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return void to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
There is a purpose, an order, observable in nature that the Lord tells us reveals the movement, the power, and efficacy of his Word. Just as every seed grows into the intended tree, plant, or flower that is contained in its genetic signature, so it is with God’s Word. It goes forth, establishing the order for which it was intended, an order that moves toward the full realization of a just and merciful world. Such is the promise we are advancing towards in these forty days. When we align our hearts with the teachings and the Life of the Word Incarnate, forgiving others (and ourselves), we participate in the divine order of God’s love. In this space, we are free to create lives of meaning and purpose. We are free from distress, knowing that “our heavenly Father know our needs before we ask.” And setting our gaze on God from this vantage point, the psalmist tells us, our faces will be “radiant with joy.”
Today we also read the gift of the Lord’s prayer. It is a meditation unto itself. Let us, slowly, trace the steps toward our heavenly Father that Jesus lays out for us in this prayer.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ … ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
To love another is to love God. Our faith as Christians resides in the lived expression of these words. We are to be known and to give testimony to our faith through our love. Is this what we are up to in the world? Are we infusing the world with the compassion and loving-kindness described in the Gospel reading? Is an act of selfless service the first image that comes up for most people when they think of Christians these days? I guess it depends on where you look and who is looking. What about me? Am I searching for God in the face of the stranger, the hungry, the incarcerated, and the sick? I can honestly say, not often enough.
Lord, give us the wisdom and the strength to seek and serve you in the least of our brothers and sisters.
I awoke this morning before dawn (which is unusual for me on a Sunday). The snow outside my window kind of caught me off guard. I could not help but be drawn in by its beauty. The streets were blanketed in white, completely receptive to yet another snowfall; and, surprisingly, so was I. It was reason enough to be up.
Prayer comes most naturally at these moments. Our hearts and minds are untouched by anything but the faint impressions of last night’s dreams. As we settle into the morning, we are present enough to hear the gentle call to sit in God’s presence. When we find the stillness, the moment opens up, and with it, the words Jesus speaks in the Gospel today, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of G-d is at hand.”
Readings: Gen 9:8-15 Psalm 25: 4-9 1Pt 2:18-22 Mk 1:12-15