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Lev. 19, 2: “Be holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am holy.”
Even elementary school children are aware that God gave Moses 10 commandments. And all of us, through Sunday readings of the Gospel, are aware of the two great commandments -- Love of God and love of neighbor -- which Christ gave us. Yet deep within our tradition are other commandments given to us by God -- some largely overlooked -- for our spiritual growth. Our Lenten theme this year will be to reflect upon some of these commandments.
At the very beginning, God tells his people to be holy as He is holy. Some scholars point to the truth that holiness is of the essence of God. But they also admit that this characteristic is difficult to define. In one of the monumental works dedicated to the subject, Rudolph Otto concluded that holiness signifies a tremendous mystery before which we can only bow in awe and worship.
In a way, the poet John Berryman was correct when he wrote: “Holy, as I suppose I dare to call you without pretending to know anything about you but infinite capacity everywhere and always and in particular certain goodness to me.”
While we may not be able to grasp the inner essence of God’s holiness, there are certain characteristics associated with it in Sacred Scripture as well as certain traditions which I believe may help us grow in holiness -- which Vatican II reminds us is our universal call.
In one of those vivid experiences that is etched in my consciousness, I remember visiting a mosque in the Holy Land in the 1960s. Before one could enter, one had to remove one’s shoes (cf. Moses in Gen. 3, 5: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”) and wash one’s hands seven times. The latter was highly symbolical -- intending to point out that no stain, even physical, is compatible with God’s holiness. In this context, we are reminded that in our pursuit of sanctification we must continually try to rid ourselves of all our sins and failings.
The Holy One of Israel is also our Redeemer. When the latter word first appeared, it signified the intermingling of blood -- the life-force of a person. And blood was essential for ratifying the Covenant in both the Old and New Testament. For the sake of brevity, we will simply emphasize in this context the centrality of the Eucharist in our pursuit of holiness.
From God’s own mouth, as it were, we have another command tied up with the pursuit of holiness. In the Book of Wisdom (7, 11) we hear His injunction: “Desire my words.” Sometimes we forget that the words of Sacred Scripture are living words, aimed at transforming our lives and our hearts. We must develop a passionate desire to not only understand intellectually the Word of God as it comes to us through Sacred Scripture and preaching; but we must pray for the grace, under the Holy Spirit, to discover its personal redemptive meaning in our lives.
One of the overlooked characteristics of the Holy One is that he is a “jealous” God. We usually associate this characteristic with negative feeling, e.g. envy. But as used by the sacred authors it has a different connotation. The emphasis is on God’s precious care and concern for those made in his image and likeness. It is especially centered about his feelings for the poor and suffering. Because of indifference and neglect, he sees how this image is blasphemed by degrading poverty and senseless starvation. That is why we encounter God’s frequent injunctions to reach out to the hurting and ignored. In our age, we might inscribe in our own hearts the Lord’s own words recorded in Sirach (4, 1): “Delay not to give to the needy.” And we better understand how almsgiving has always been a part of our Lenten ascetic.
One of the early writers of the Church stated the “there is no force in God.” God does not compel. He respects our free will. But, he continues to extend his invitation to pursue holiness through individuals. In other words, we must be displaying the characteristics which will lead others to desire to pursue holiness. We must never forget the observation made long ago by Doctor Johnson that our world does not need more precepts but rather living models and examples.
When asked about the secret of holiness, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said simply to ask the Lord for the grace and desire, and he will show you your own unique path to follow.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is residence at St. Mary, Dedham.