Holiness: A Living Mission
When New Year’s Day is approaching, we look back on the year that is about to end. What kind of a year has it been for me? How well have I lived it? What changes should I make in my life in order to do better next year? People make resolutions that they hope will help them improve their lives over the coming year.
In the same way, when Ash Wednesday is approaching, Catholics sense an invitation to look at their current lives from a spiritual perspective. How faithful have I been to the teaching and example of Christ? Where am I failing? What changes should I make in order to do better during Lent and beyond? Catholics give up things for Lent. Some may take on some new activity. They hope that these changes will help them turn from sin and walk more closely with Christ.
We can all stand to give something up for Lent, and beyond. However, if we are too focused on just giving up something, we may be tempted to think that being good or holy is merely about not sinning. Holiness is understood only negatively. We can forget that holiness is not merely the absence of sin. To be holy means to be a living mission planned by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit to reflect and embody a certain aspect of the Gospel. It means being united to the death and resurrection of Christ, so that it is Christ who loves in us. It means dying to anything that resists the love of Christ in us so that His joy might be in us, that our joy might be complete, and that our holiness might become contagious.
To help us on this journey, which begins during Lent, blossoms during Easter and then moves outward during Pentecost, we have Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad). This is the first of three articles in Harvest that will look at this exhortation.
In its first two chapters, the Holy Father lays out our call to holiness. This call is not only for the ordained and consecrated but for all the baptized. We are all called to incarnate, in our own lives, the love of Christ.
We do not do this alone. We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”: saints from past generations who continue to intercede for us and inspire us. We have the gifts of Scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities of faith, and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, and which draws people to Christ.
We do not do this in unusual ways alone. We need not join a monastery or live in solitude. Holiness is usually lived by doing ordinary things with great love, knowing that it is Christ who loves through us.
Holiness implies a certain vulnerability. Each of us needs to give up our illusions of sef-sufficiency, our need for absolute security, and our desire to be superior to others if we are to embody the Christ who emptied Himself out of love and embraced the radical vulnerability of the Cross. Each of us is called to trust that Christ is present in everyone we meet, and that no one, while that person lives, is beyond the reach of grace.
Pope Francis points out two temptations that we can face in seeking holiness. One, Gnosticism, is in the mind. The other, Pelagianism, is in the will.
We can speak of God and His gracious love for us only through human words and concepts. These concepts point beyond themselves to the living God, for no concept, however true, can say everything about God. Gnosticism focuses on the concepts themselves. It believes that God and His Gospel can be reduced to concepts that can be readily understood by those who have been “enlightened.” Only the “enlightened,” those who know the “right” concepts, are the true Catholics. This temptation is about intellectual pride. They will look down on those who haven’t been “enlightened” like them.
The presence of Christ’s Spirit in us empowers us to live according to His will. We are gradually transformed so that we live more and more in harmony with His will. Pelagians focus on the will alone. They are often people who are naturally gifted at making rules and following them. They take pride in how well they follow rules. They may speak of grace, but they really believe that they are good because of their superior willpower. They may do good things, but their very expertise at following rules may actually block the Holy Spirit from endowing them with the love and joy that make a full Christian life possible. They will often look down on people who seem powerless to change their lives.
Both of these temptations forget that the core of the Gospel is grace. We have been brought into the very life of God by the grace of God and not by any merit of our own. It is sheer gift. We live out that gift, not by looking for how we can feel superior to others, but by living out lives of self-emptying love: faith working through love. Moreover, when we do love as Christ, it is not we who love on our own. It is Christ who loves in us. Our love is there, too, but is rooted, empowered, and enlivened by His love. A radical vulnerability that reflects utter trust in God is one sure sign of true holiness.
Father Mark Nolette