This homily was given at the Sung Mass on the XVII Sunday after Pentecost at Old Saint Mary’s church in Chinatown, Washington, D.C:
In the opening of his masterful Encyclical Letter on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI referred to today’s gospel scene, commenting, ‘Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus […] Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us’ (§1).
This is both a strong and a beautiful instruction in the Christian life. Strong, because it reveals to us the somewhat uncomfortable truth that the extent to which we love our neighbour is a reflection of the extent to which we love God. And beautiful, because it calls us to a more profound relationship with God, through the bonds of charity which we share with our brothers and sisters – those who share in Christ’s dignity, simply because he has chosen to take on our human nature and redeem it. As Pope Benedict points out, there is an intrinsic connection between our love and service of God, and our recognition of him in our fellow man. In and through the miracle of the incarnation – the enfleshment of God himself – Christ’s divine nature and human nature are fused together for all eternity and we certainly cannot separate them out and still profess an authentically Christian worship of God.
What does all this mean in the reality of our everyday lives? First, of course, it means that a living and dynamic relationship with the Lord is essential. We must undergo our incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and then we must continue in that mystical union with God throughout our earthly life. This is what the Lord means when he repeats the words of Leviticus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with they whole mind. We must – in all that we believe, and think, and do, direct ourselves toward the service and love of the God who offers eternal life through the gateway of baptism.
When we commit serious sin, when we cut ourselves off from that covenant relationship with God by our own free choice, we sully that love and cheapen it. Love can never be a simple notion – ‘a mere “command”’, as Pope Benedict puts it – but must be a continually deepening action, building and strengthening our relationship with the Lord God, through the sacrifice of our lives to his will for us. When we destroy what Saint Alphonsus Liguori calls the bond of love that dost unite the servant to his living Lord, we may continue in outward signs of devotion, and may even harbour pious thoughts, but we nonetheless fail to live in the communion of the Church and, thus, in a loving relationship with God, which is the source and means of our salvation. Only through God’s mercy and grace in the sacrament of confession do we restore the covenant established at our baptism, and enter once more into a truly loving relationship with the Lord.
Secondly, that relationship of love must make an obvious and tangible difference to the way we live with those around us. We cannot profess a true love for Christ if such love does not radically alter the way in which we treat others. We must be faithful to him, not just when we are kneeling before the tabernacle or saying our prayers, but when we are in our places of work, in our schools and universities, and even on the Red Line during DC’s daily rush hour of apocalyptic proportions. In these environments where we do not have such obvious reminders of God’s love for us as in a church, our love for God is truly tested. If God is not present in our minds and hearts when we speak and interact with our neighbours, then it is not because he has deserted us; no, it is because we have deserted him.
To love our neighbour, and most especially to love those who rely on others for their most basic human needs, is not the reserve of any one political, or social, or cultural group, but the natural consequence and response of our love for God and his love for us. How better can we demonstrate our desire to be united to the Lord in his heavenly presence for all eternity, than to live now as his servants here on earth – his hands and his feet, as Saint Teresa of Avila would remind us – demonstrating his sacrificial love as the means of salvation for all who truly turn to him?
And here, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, every action and gesture, every thought and word, directs us to the fount of that love – the Cross whose triumphant exaltation the Church celebrated yesterday. At this and every Christian altar, we see re-presented in an unbloody manner, the sacrifice of Calvary in which God the Son offered himself for the glory of God the Father, and for the salvation of the whole world. Christ’s divinity and humanity – one in the second person of the Most Blessed Trinity – are the means of his glorification of God the Father and of our redemption. Through a twofold sacrifice – the offering of our own wills and desires as a sign of our love for God, and through love for our neighbour – we, too, take a share in the Lord’s passion and death, so that we might come also to his resurrection life. May this be the goal of every thought, word, and deed, that our entire lives may be lifted up to God to whom be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21).