The saints in this painting are Benedict, Francis, and Romuald. To read my commentary on it go here.
Friday of the Third Week of Lent
Psalm 80:6c-8a, 8bc-9, 10-11ab, 14 and 17 (R. cf. 11 and 9a)
Having arrived at the mid-point of Lent, the liturgy calls us to re-focus on what is essential: the charity without which nothing has value in the sight of God.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole mind, and thy whole strength. This is the first commandment, and the second, its like, is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mk 12:30-31).
The Apostle on Charity
Saint Paul develops the words of Jesus and points to their implications. The saints understood him; I think, in particular, of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, and of her vocation to be nothing less than “Love at the heart of the Church”:
I may speak with every tongue that men and angels use; yet, if I lack charity, I am no better than echoing bronze, or the clash of cymbals. I may have powers of prophecy, no secret hidden from me, no knowledge too deep for me; I may have utter faith, so that I can move mountains; yet if I lack charity I count for nothing. I may give away all that I have, to feed the poor; I may give myself up to be burnt at the stake; if I lack charity, it goes for nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).
The Charity of Fire and of Blood
There is nothing soft about charity. Charity must not be confused with sentimental fluff. Charity is not conventional niceness. Charity is costly. Charity can never be traded against truth. Charity is not the vapid discourse of I’m OK; you’re OK.” Charity is fierce. Charity is an inpouring of fire and an outpouring of blood. Charity is the flame devouring Elijah’s oblation on Mount Carmel: “The fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 K 18:38).
What was the reaction of the people when they saw this? “They fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 K 18:39). Why? Because “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16) and in the presence of this fire from heaven, they were stricken in their hearts and thrown to the ground in adoration.
Love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned (Ct 8:6-7).
Come up to Jesus
The scribe who approaches Jesus to ask, “Which is the first commandment of all?” represents each of us. His question is our question. Observe this scribe closely. We have much to learn from him. He comes up to Jesus. Therein lies the beginning of wisdom. Come up to Jesus. Approach Him. Draw near to Him. If you would know what secrets lie hidden in His Sacred Heart, seek Him face to face.
The Decision to Ask for Light
The scribe puts his question to Jesus simply and sincerely. There is no concealed agenda here, no manipulative rhetoric, no double-talk. There is a desire to know the truth, a decision to ask for light. Jesus answers the scribe’s question and, immediately, what does the scribe do? He repeats exactly what Jesus has said to him and applies it to himself: “Truly, Master, thou hast answered well; there is but one God and no other beside Him; and to love Him with the love of the whole heart, and the whole understanding, and the whole soul, and the whole strength, is a greater thing than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk 12:32-34). “Then Jesus, seeing how wisely he had answered, said to him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34).
The Seven Steps
This whole episode is a paradigm of prayer in seven steps: (1) the approach to Jesus; (2) the question put simply and sincerely; (3) the decision to ask for light; (4) the attentive listening to the answer; (5) the repetition of the answer; (6) the application of it to one’s own life; (7) the confirmation, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34).
Eyes That Cannot See and Ears That Cannot Hear
We are all of us subject to being taken in by the counterfeits of charity that are, at any given moment, being widely circulated. How can one learn to discern true charity from its counterfeits? First of all, do not rely on your own perceptions and insights alone. “Have you no sense, no wits even now? Is your heart still dull? Have you eyes that cannot see, and ears that cannot hear; do you remember nothing?” (Mk 8:18-19). No one is entirely free of prejudices. In the face of Truth we are all witless and dull of heart. There are shadowy zones in all of us: eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear. Admitting one’s ignorance opens the heart to the light of truth.
Fixing Our Gaze on the Open Heart of Christ
“Anyone who wishes to give love,” says Pope Benedict XVI, “must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced Heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).” This is the Hour of the Pierced Side of Christ and of the Most Holy Eucharist! The practice of charity begins at the Cross and returns there. And that is why we who desire to believe in love, to live in love, and to speak the truth in love, return day after day to the altar for the Holy Sacrifice, and remain willingly, generously, before the tabernacle, exposing themselves to the radiance of the Eucharistic Heart of Christ.
The Triumph of Crucified Love
For those who have eyes to see, every Mass is an epiphany of sacrificial love, every Mass an opportunity to take our place with the Mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple at the foot of the Cross and, with them, to “look upon the man whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). Do that and your charity will be true. Do that, and in the end, Crucified Love will triumph over all the rest. “We have learned to recognize the love God has in our regard, to recognize it, and make it our belief” (1 Jn 4:16).