Homily: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A
In today’s First Reading we’re reminded of God’s command that we must strive to be holy as he is holy and that an essential characteristic of holiness is a heart that does not harbor anger within it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines anger as “An emotion which is not in itself wrong, but which, when it is not controlled by reason or hardens into resentment and hate, becomes one of the seven capital sins.” Now each of the seven capital sins is a mortal sin; and a mortal sin is a sin that definitively severs our bond with God; and severing our bond with God is like a space station astronaut who goes out for a spacewalk and then cuts off his tether from the station: it is an act that means certain death. Anger, therefore, that hardens into resentment and hate, not only hurts the person who is the object of our resentment and hate, but it also means certain spiritual death for us. In other words, it’s a situation in which everyone loses. Meekness, however, is a powerful remedy for the negative effects of anger.
Although it is often portrayed as a weakness, meekness is actually a very powerful characteristic to possess. This is because it involves a very virtuous effort not to strike, or even to dislike, the one who’s struck you, and effort that requires a very powerful discipline over the will. We all know that true power is to be in control of powerful forces. Since the human will is a powerful force that can bring great flourishing of life as well as widespread destruction and death, to have great discipline over one’s will is to have great power. On the contrary, to be able to be provoked into action is actually to give your power to someone else. Thus meekness, the virtue to resist provocation to resentment and hatred, is not a weakness, but rather a strength. Genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza is a great example of the power of meekness.
Immaculee was born in a small village in Rwanda, Africa. In 1994, when she was home on spring break, the president of Rwanda, who was of the Hutu tribe, was assassinated. The Hutus assumed that it was a member of Tutsi tribe who had committed the crime and, in a vengeful fit of anger, took up arms against the Tutsis, to which Immaculée’s family belonged. This response was widespread and armed Hutu men went from house to house, killing every Tutsi they found.
Immaculée fled to the local pastor’s house; and, to avoid being murdered, she had to hide in a 3-foot x 4-foot bathroom for 91 days with seven other women. As she endured this, she felt anger and resentment beginning to destroy her heart and so she started praying the rosary. “I said the Lord's Prayer hundreds of times, hoping to forgive the killers who were murdering all around me”, she wrote. “It was no use: every time I got to the part asking God to ‘forgive those who trespass against us,’ my mouth went dry. I couldn't say the words because I didn't truly embrace the feeling behind them. My inability to forgive”, she wrote, “caused me even greater pain than the anguish I felt in being separated from my family, and it was worse than the physical torment of being constantly hunted.” When she finally left that bathroom, she learned that all her family, with the exception of one brother studying abroad, had been murdered. In total, one million people had been massacred.
After the genocide, Immaculée was led to the man, now in prison, who had murdered her mother and her brother. This man had been one of her neighbors and the prison staff was prepared to kill him on her behalf. She remembered how often she had imagined killing the Hutus who had done so much evil while she hid in that bathroom. Despite all that she had suffered, however, when confronted with her family’s murderer, she simply said, “I forgive you,” and walked away. Through her prayer she developed the virtue of meekness, in which she found the power to overcome her anger and resentment (and thus to preserve God’s grace within her) while demonstrating the power of God’s merciful love to someone who desperately needed to encounter it.
When it comes to meekness, however, it is truly Our Lord who has set the standard for us. Time and again in the Old Testament, God’s loving kindness was rejected by the Israelite people. At times, he corrected them by letting them suffer—like when the serpents attacked them in the desert or when he allowed them to be driven into exile by the Babylonians—but he never allowed his anger to turn into resentment and hatred, thus demonstrating his superior power.
Then, when God took on human skin and walked among us, he suffered an equal number of insults, yet remained meek: not allowing the anger he most assuredly felt to seep into his heart and lead him to hatred. Rather, in his meekness, he was led to the crucifixion—a perfectly innocent man, murdered because of our hatred—and thus demonstrated the power of being meek: for by allowing himself to be murdered—even though it was in his power to avoid it—he accomplished what no man (or even mankind as a whole) could have ever accomplished on his own: the redemption of mankind from sin.
And so Jesus, knowing well the command that he himself gave to Moses that the people must strive to be holy as he is holy, teaches his disciples that, in order for their righteousness to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, they must live meekness in its fullness and forgive, even when they have suffered injustice, submitting themselves to even greater injustices. And why? Because he wants a Church full of wimps who can’t defend themselves? No! Of course not! Rather, he teaches us to “turn the other cheek” because he knows that, in doing so, we will keep anger (righteous as it may be) from seeping into our hearts and, thus, turning into hatred, which not only separates us from one another, but which also separates us from God and his saving grace.
My brothers and sisters, in today’s on-edge, thin-skinned, and irritable society, the command to “turn the other cheek” is a tall order and it’s not something that we can accomplish overnight. But it is something that we can accomplish; and we can begin today. The best way that I have found to accomplish it is to contemplate Christ crucified whenever anger strikes. None of us have been mistreated as badly as he was. And so, when we contemplate how he was able not only to bear those injustices, but also to forgive those who hurt him, we begin to see that it is possible for us to overcome our anger before it becomes resentment and hatred; and, thus, to choose the path of grace: the path by which we become perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect.
As we not only contemplate, but also encounter the great sacrifice of Christ here at this altar, let us ask for the grace to be meek, as our Lord is meek, so that our holiness might increase and become a light of hope that draws all those around us to be united with us in God’s heavenly kingdom.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – February 19th, 2017