. . . Reflection on the 7th Sunday of the Year, A, 2020
By Fr Innocent Nwafor
Certain coinages appear common in today's Christian religious milieu in Nigeria.
In ordinary conversation, you hear people speak about “Miracle Centres”, “Healing Centres”, “Adoration Ground”, “Wellness Centre” etc. On the other hand, you never hear people talk about “Holiness Centre” or “Holiness Ground”. Following Malthus Economic Theory of demand and supply, one might conclude that the demand for Miracles, Healing, Adoration and bodily Wellness is in the increase, hence their corresponding supply. On the contrary, one can infer that the demand for Holiness of life has not yet hit the 'religious market'. That could be the reason why discussions on Holiness of life are still in a very short supply. Put differently, it can be said that although religiosity is booming in our society today, the expected surge in personal holiness of life with its consequent communal peace and harmony, justice and fairness, care for fellow human beings especially the poor and the less privileged, care of environment, orderly and organized movements of people and vehicles, love for beauty and aesthetics, is yet to be visibly evident.
May be people are afraid to embrace the term “holiness” lest they be accused of still living in the middle ages; the time of St Thomas Aquinas; the time of St Augustine and the time of St John of the Cross. Hence, modern preachers would, rather, prefer to speak about the need to be “born again”, or to achieve “integral maturity”. Some talk of being “open” in one's relationship with God, or the need to attain “wholeness”, seen by some, as the modern way of attaining holiness.
I remember that during the 2019 Awka Diocesan Priests Annual Retreat/On-going Formation held at Archbishop A.K Obiefuna Conference/Pastoral Centre, Okpuno, one of the topics was Priestly Fraternity at the Service of Holiness of Life, one priest asked about the definition of holiness. Another responded that if we want to understand what the Christian understanding of holiness is all about, then we should look at Christ, the Son of God.
Today, the seventh Sunday in the ordinary time of the year, the Church presents to us the Leviticus code of Holiness. In like manner, Jesus in the gospel holds before us the age-long life-giving new brand of holiness. To reassure his hearers of his respect to the Jewish Law and the Prophets, he lifts Leviticus 19:2 but rebrands it, and authoritatively reminds us: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mark 5:48). Whereas Moses uses the words be 'holy' Jesus in the gospel of today says be 'perfect' as the heavenly father is perfect.
As the Heavenly Father is Holy
The 'key' thing here is to understand that holiness is a very important, if not the Attribute of God. In this one attribute the basis of all Jewish laws and the existence of Israel as a nation, is established. Israel is called to be holy because God with whom she entered into a covenant relationship is holy. Every details of Israel's life is to be lived in consciousness of that covenant with God. No human can be holy, left alone (see Mark 10:18). Israel is being invited to strive towards that holiness that belongs to God. “Imitate the one who called you. As he is holy so you, too, should be holy in all your conduct, since Scripture says: Be holy, for I am holy” (1Peter 1: 15f). How do we better explain this?
God is holy and He is totally Other.? God is always reaching out beyond who He is. He is a Creator (Gen 1:1-27). He is a redeemer (Exodus 3:7-9). He is compassionate and love (Hosea 11:8f). No selfishness is found in Him (see James 3:16-17). He is like a power house full of light energy. If all the towns that share boundary with the energy house want to be illuminated, they must be connected with the power house. There must be conditions of being connected: right gauge of wire, right socket, firmly attached. God is that power house whose energy is never, never in short supply. “The Lord's love abides unceasingly, his compassion is never exhausted; every morning it is renewed, so great is his faithfulness” (Lamentation 3:22f). If the towns meet the conditions for getting connected, certainly they will have light.
In like manner God alone is the source of holiness. Nobody can be holy except by connecting to the source of holiness. God wants to be present in the midst of his people. But the people must meet the condition of His being present among them in order to benefit from that holiness. The condition is reaching out to share in that unique holiness. This holiness is also his goodness, his love. That is why the insistence: “God is love” (1John 4:16).
Not to get connected to God's holiness is to be in darkness, in hatred, to live in selfishness. It is Godlessness that produces difficult times. How do you know when people are not connected to God's holiness, when holiness is at its lowest ebb? St Paul gives us the answer: “Be quite sure that there will be difficult times in the last days. People will become selfish, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, cruel, enemies of good, traitors, reckless, full of pride, and more in love with pleasure than with God. They will keep the appearance of piety, while rejecting its demands” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
God is holy because he is a liberator. He is just and stands opposed to tyranny (Lev 19:36) He sets people free. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name. You are mine”(Isaiah 43:3-4). That is the sense of God's holiness.
You too should be holy
“To be holy is to live in a way that reflects the moral perfection of God”, says Armando J. Levoratti. Because Israel is to mirror that moral perfection of God, she is called to be concerned for the other. She shall reserve food for the poor (Lev 19:10), she should not defraud others (19:13). She is to care for the blind (19:14), and act justly (19:15). She should not take vengeance (19:18), should care for the aged (19:32). She should not cheat in business (19:35-36). She should not move an ancient boundary stone set up by their ancestors (Proverb 22:28). They should love not only their neighbour but the alien as themselves (Lev. 19: 34). So, holiness, far from being just striving towards personal salvation, is about how one is acting in his day to day relationship with God, with his fellow human being, and with his environment. How much I love God can always be discerned from the way I treat my fellow human being, how I treat the poor, strangers, people under my control, how I treat my workers, and my seniors. It can be seen too, in how I take care of my surroundings and the environment. God is beauty. You cannot love God and everything about you and around you is filthy and unkempt.
You are God's Temple and God's Spirit dwells in you
Samuel Balantine says that God created the world with a capacity to be “verygood,” And if goodness is maintained by the order built in nature and in the hearts of the human beings, life will flourish. Everyone has that capacity to do good because the Spirit of God is living among us. The Spirit links us to the Father through the Son Jesus Christ. So, each of us is like that small power house. St Paul calls them temple, the dwelling places of the Spirit of God. Our holiness can only be derived from the holiness of God, the main and indeed the only source of holiness. To be constantly connected to the holiness of God demands a lot of humility. We must be like fools in order to be filled with the wisdom and holiness of God.
The fruit of this wisdom and holiness is love, and love that goes beyond emotional expression. It should touch every aspect of life such as being honest in business dealings, using right gauges, offering services without asking for bribe. For farmers, do not strip your farm bare. Leave enough for the poor and foreigners to glean to support themselves.
In today's language, it will mean paying your electric bill, your insurance premium, particular attention to the poor etc. Loving your neighbour would mean not just refraining from hurting him but finding ways to work for his good. Perhaps the greatest of the call to holiness is the call to love one's enemy and to pray for those who persecute us. It is at this level that it becomes clear that the holiness is not of mere human capacity. It comes from God's Spirit that has been given to us that enables us to live beyond our human capacities. Here Bishop Godfrey Onah is right when he says that “If our enemies succeed in making us hate them, then, they have conquered us completely. For Christianity without love, including love of the enemy is empty. And a Christian without that love might as well be of any other religion.”
I am often fascinated the way people describe the life of those they consider to have lived holy life. One of such descriptions is about our own Fr Aaron Ekwu. Of him, this testimony was given: “He was very interested in his peoples' pains, sicknesses, disappointments, crises, joys and sorrows. He helped many to understand and value God who lives in them. He led many to God through their needs and life challenges. He helped them to fulfill their mission in life. He instructed his parishioners to try to make everyone happy. He acclaimed that God is so beautiful and divine but God should not be taken for granted. He made people confide in God as their Source and Maker of all that exist. He affirmed that God is the very Holy One and He alone must be worshipped”.
May such testimony too be given of you one day. I wish you abundance of God's blessings as we prepare for another round of Lenten season beginning this coming Ash Wednesday.