How vivid are my memories as a child after reading the life of one of the great saints of the Church! How often I would find myself thinking, “O Lord, I want to be holy too. Help me to be holy Lord!” And so would go the musings of an idealistic young fellow who believed that it could really and truly happen. “If I really try, then one day I will be holy just like the saints are!” I never doubted that this could happen, not for a moment. And I still believe it to this day.
On this Monday of the first week of Lent we are given a profound lesson from the Lord himself who teaches us what it means to be holy. Perhaps this kind of holiness is not quite like the fasting and prayer of St. Paul of the Cross who preached to the poor in dark and swampy places, or not the same as the gentleness and soothing touch of a St. Francis as he reached out to the poor and infirm. But in our readings today we discover that this kind of holiness is offered to us all, even though it may not be so easy to attain.
In the Book of Leviticus we read the immensely challenging words of Yahweh himself:
“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
The words are firm, almost a demand rather than an invitation. And then it becomes so very clear what we must do to achieve such holiness. We must not steal or lie; nor should we speak falsely to another. We cannot profane God’s name and we dare not defraud or steal from another person. And how could we ever curse a deaf person or even put a stumbling block to trip the blind one? We are to act with justice in all things whether it is with a powerful or a weak person, all are to be treated with justice and dignity. As if this is not enough the Lord tells us we may never slander another person and never stand by when our neighbor is in need. And to bring it all to a conclusion, we dare not ever hold hatred in our heart for a brother or sister but must love them as ourselves, even as we must love God above all else. So does God reveal this message to us, stamping the lesson with final words: I am the Lord.”
The Gospel passage from Matthew is even more powerful as we have another lesson in what holiness is all about. Holiness is when we give food or clothing, comfort and compassion, to another because, in so doing, we indeed do it to the Lord himself. As long as we do it to the least of our brothers and sisters this act of holiness is one that is bestowed upon the Lord himself. Such is holiness. This is what it means to be a saint! Let us learn well from the colorful readings on this Monday of the first week of Lent.
Fr. Pat Brennan, C.P. is the director of Saint Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.