Love and Holiness
(Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; 1 John 4:11-16; John 17:11-19)
Introduction to Mass
Like the Scripture passages for last Sundayís Mass, this Sundayís readings revolve around the subject of Godís love for us and our love for each other. The impact God has on us, fundamentally, is to make us more loving, which is to say that the more open we are to the influence of Godís grace, the more we take on this basic quality of his character.
To begin Mass we think of the occasions when weíve resisted the process of conversion and closed ourselves off from Godís influence, and we ask God for pardon and healing.
In many ways the readings this Sunday carry on where last week's readings left off.
Last Sunday we heard Christ tell his followers to love one another as he loves them. This week Saint John offers more of the fruits of his own reflection and prayer when he tells the people he's writing to that "no one has ever seen God, but as long as we love one another, God is living in us". "God is love," he writes, "and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him".
What Saint John had learned, I think, through his own lifetime of faith is that the more we're open to Godís influence, the more our personality or our character comes to be directed by this central virtue of love. Our nature comes more and more to reflect Godís nature. This is what holiness consists of, in our Christian understanding of holiness.
When we come under the influence of Godís love we become kinder, gentler and more flexible towards other people and the demands that they make on us. We grow less attached to our own plans and desires, we become less willing to see other people in terms of serving our own needs, we become less resentful and angry when things don't turn out exactly the way we want them to.
There are plenty of people, of course, who reject any kind of belief in God and they still manage to show these attitudes and to treat people in a way that can only be described as loving and selfless. "God's love is complete in us," says St John, "as long as we love one another". If weíre genuinely concerned to serve other peopleís needs without any thought about our own advantage then God is living in us and acting in us, even if weíre not a believer in God.
But it's still true to say that for those of us who are actually Christians our commitment to God means that we're called to something more than ordinary human maturity. We're certainly never called to something less.
People who never pray, and never explicitly appeal to God to guide them in the right direction, are far less likely to be great examples of Christian love than people who do - although, like with everything else, there are always going to be a few exceptions that prove the rule. God is far more likely to make an impact on us if we deliberately try to be open to him and invite him to re-form our character in his image.
And yet having said all that, it would be a great mistake to believe that the impact of God's grace on us necessarily results in all our rough edges being filed away so that we turn into some sort of flawless or perfect personality. The impact that God makes on us wonít necessarily result in our measuring up to modern ideas of psychological balance or self-possession.
In the gospel passage for today Jesus draws a distinction between belonging to God and belonging to the world. It was a distinction he often made in his preaching.
The people that God chooses to carry out his work, or - to look at it another way - the people who discover their need for God, aren't usually people whose personalities are completely flawless and perfect and balanced.
Usually the people who are most open to God are the people who are well aware of their weaknesses and wounds, their negative features. A lot of the individuals that we recognise now as saints were very unpromising to start with - aggressive and domineering like St Bernard, or anxious and neurotic like St Alphonsus Liguori, or a bit of a social climber and a careerist, like St Vincent De Paul.
In the case of all these kinds of people, there was always a basic openness to God, alongside their imperfections. And as their lives went on and they persevered in their relationship with God, God purified their motives until more and more of their personality was taken over by the love that St John is talking about again in the readings this week.
So in our own case we should avoid being defeatist about our own spiritual lives. We shouldnít be so quick to convince ourselves that there are aspects of our character that God somehow canít change, so that weíll never be holy the way people like Bernard and Vincent and the other saints were holy. There should be nothing that - spiritually speaking - makes us think that we have to settle for mediocrity.
The truth is that our temperaments and our personalities are the raw materials that God uses to make us holy. Sometimes it's our least attractive features, the aspects of ourselves that we dislike the most, that God uses and changes for his purposes.
Those are the conclusions that I think Saint John had reached by the time he came to write his letters and his gospel. So these are the lessons we should also draw from these particular passages by Saint John on the subject of Christian love.