“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri takes the poet on an epic journey from earth to the utter depths of hell, on a long climb up Mount Purgatory (Dante envisioned Purgatory as a mountain), and finally through each successive ring of heaven, moving inward until the climactic moment when he stands before Almighty God.
I don’t think I need to call this a “spoiler alert.” I mean, the poem has been around for 700 years now. If you haven’t read it yet, I bet you won’t mind if I give away the ending. In any case, Dante stands before Almighty God, Whom he sees, first as an infinitely brilliant light, then as a united set of three rings — signifying the Holy Trinity, and then as a single, perfect circle — symbolizing the love of God by which God’s Son came to save us and which is the first defining reality of God. As St. John tells us, “God is love” (I Jn 4:8). Dante finishes his poem with these words, explaining his inability to go any further in describing God’s majesty:
“But mine were not the feathers for that flight,
Save that the truth I longed for came to me,
Smiting my mind like lightning flashing bright.
Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
Turned — as a wheel in equal balance — by
The love that moves the sun and other stars.” (Paradise, Canto XXXIII)
As much as any scene in literature, painting, or in any art form, the final cantos (or sections) of the Divine Comedy help us to appreciate God’s unfathomable holiness and majesty. And Dante’s poetry gives our minds a kind of picture, inadequate as it might be, of what Jesus means when he refers to the perfection of God in this Sunday’s Gospel. If we are smart, we might find ourselves a bit startled to realize that Jesus refers to us in the very same sentence. What have we to do with such holiness as God’s? Yet Jesus not only mentions us in the same sentence, but does what for us is unthinkable, were we left to our own devices: He tells us to be like God in holiness: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We might be tempted to think this is some kind of mistake. But we also hear in Sunday’s first reading, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” Add Jesus’ command squarely in the middle of His Sermon on the Mount, which is basically an extended teaching about holiness. The whole Sermon on the Mount exhorts the disciples of Christ to the kind of holiness no human could achieve on his own. It is the kind of holiness only possible for God — a holiness that makes a person meek, poor of spirit, able to suffer persecution, willing to make any sacrifice in order to avoid sin, loving not only to God and those who are easily loved, but also to strangers and even enemies!
I suspect there are at least two groups of people who will hear Jesus’ message this Sunday: those for whom the call to holiness is a “new” teaching and those who have heard much about this call already. Those for whom it is “new” have probably been present before when this text and similar texts were read, but perhaps they are really hearing it for the first time or in a new way.
For them, the call of Jesus can seem to be too much. How could I possibly be like God? Wasn’t I just arguing with my spouse in the car on the way to Mass? Don’t I often feel like prayer is a chore? Am I even sure what holiness would look like in the concrete circumstances of my life?
Those who have heard a lot already about our call to holiness, usually under the title of the “universal call to holiness,” probably have — at least from time to time — the opposite problem. We easily slip into thinking we’ve got holiness figured out. We might or might not think we’ve made much progress so far, but we at least know what we’re doing. Or so we think.
One of the lessons of this Sunday’s readings is that our holiness always has to do with other people. It’s never just about self-improvement. We need to love our neighbors, and to pray for our enemies. And while there are lots of ways to show our love, and lots of things we might pray for our enemies about, what more could we possibly do for anyone than to help them to hear the call of Jesus and to respond with all their hearts?
It helps to meditate deeply upon the mystery of God’s holiness, no matter which of the two groups I’ve mentioned counts you as a member. For those who are intimidated by the idea that Jesus could be calling us to perfection, you are on the right track! We do not have what it takes to become holy.
Well, that’s not quite true. There is one gift each of us has, a gift we can think far too little of, yet which makes all the difference in the world when it comes to doing what Jesus asks of us: the Gift of the Holy Spirit. If we are intimidated by God’s majesty, we might as well go all the way and admit that God is so awesome and powerful and holy that He can even perform the miracle of making us holy! Affirming God’s power to make us holy would be a great start. Then, as we surrender our lives to Him each day, we would be poised to advance quickly on the path of holiness.
For those who have become familiar with the idea that we’re called to holiness, the answer is really the same. We must beg for the Gift of the Holy Spirit to be renewed in us, so that we will understand that we don’t understand. So that we will once again stand in total awe of God’s holiness. And so that we can be humble enough to allow God to do in us what we can never do ourselves: to live every word of the Sermon on the Mount.
One of the lessons of this Sunday’s readings is that our holiness always has to do with other people. It’s never just about self-improvement. We need to love our neighbors, and to pray for our enemies. And while there are lots of ways to show our love, and lots of things we might pray for our enemies about, what more could we possibly do for anyone than to help them to hear the call of Jesus and to respond with all their hearts? What more could we do than to let people know of the love God has for them — each of them — and to invite them to surrender their lives to that love, with us, in the Church? What more important things could we pray for than these?
If we are really going to be holy, that holiness will not stay inside of us. It will come out, in our words and actions. And we will have the tremendous blessing of bringing people closer to God and God closer to them.
In the final canto of the Divine Comedy, from which I quoted at the beginning of this article, Dante offers a brief but incisive prayer:
“Grant then to my tongue sufficient power
to leave the palest flicker of your glory
to readers of a later day and hour,
For should something return to memory
and sound but faintly in my verses here,
the clearer will they see your victory.”
Dante knew that the transformation he experienced in his journey to God was not a gift for him alone. He knew that to share his vision with others could transform their lives as well. May the God Who gives Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist make us more and more like Him, that we might give to others even the “palest flicker of (His) glory” and help others more clearly to “see (His) victory.”
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.