Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 16, 2011 – St. John’s
This is the second Sunday in what is called “Ordinary Time,” that is, a time when we are not celebrating a liturgical season such as Advent, Lent, and Eastertide. It’s not a very exciting title, is it?
You may have noticed that on ordinary Sundays, of the three biblical readings, the first, from the Old Testament, and the third, from one of the Gospels, are related to one another, the first anticipating the Gospel reading, the third showing the fulfilment of the first. The second reading is usually taken from one of St. Paul’s Epistles, which is read consecutively, and it is not necessarily related to the other two, so that a preacher has two different themes to choose between for his homily and he shouldn’t stretch in order to find relationships among all three readings.
In this year’s cycle of Bible readings, the second reading for these ordinary Sundays will offer successive passages from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. We have heard the first three verses of it today–essentially Paul’s greeting to the small Christian community he had founded by his preaching perhaps five years earlier–”the church of God that is in Corinth,” as he calls it. The word “Church” in Greek, ekklesia, means “assembly,” “congregation,” and it refers to an actual assembly of the Christian believers there in Corinth. It may help to keep in mind that the whole community of Christians there was quite small, perhaps not as large as this assembly here today. They gathered in private homes, of course–there were no churches yet–and it is unlikely that a gathering would have consisted of more than about fifty people.
St. Paul says of those gathered that they have been “sanctified” and that they have been “called to be holy.” Sanctified, of course, means “made holy,” so he is saying at once, in successive phrases, “you have been made holy and you have been called to be holy.” I want to say a few things about this description which is read to us because it applies as much to ourselves as it did to the Corinthians to whom Paul was writing. In fact, of course, these letters are read to us today as if the great Apostle were writing to us.
In the Bible, as also in other religions, things or persons was called “holy” because they were set apart for God. Holiness was not, that is, first of all a moral category–meaning really good; and we are not to imagine people walking around with haloes over their heads. Most often “holy” designated a person or a thing that God had chosen for himself. (So today when a pope is called “Holy Father,” this is not a reference to his personal sanctity–many popes have been anything but saints–, but to the office that he occupies.) That primary meaning of holiness was in mind when St. Thomas Aquinas explained why the Church is said in the Creed to be “holy.” He found four reasons: because, like a physical building when it is consecrated as a church, the Church’s members have been washed clean in the blood of Christ; because, again like the church building, they have been anointed, as Christ was the Anointed One, or Messiah; because the Trinity dwells within them, and any place God inhabits is holy by his presence; and because his holy name is invoked upon them.
Notice that all these have to do with what God has done for the Church, for us: he has washed us, anointed us, come to dwell with us, given his name to us. That is the sort of thing that Paul meant when he told the Corinthians that they have been made holy. He was describing the relationship with himself that the holy God had chosen to offer those who believe. They were holy because of his word and grace.
When St. Thomas ended his explanation of the holiness of the Church, he added this comment: “Having been made holy in these ways, we must beware not by sin to soil our soul, which is the temple of God.” He was explaining what Paul meant in his greeting to the Corinthians: Because they had been made holy, they were called to be holy. Christians then and now are called to live up to the blessings in which they stand in virtue of God’s gracious love. The obligations, the calls, the challenges of a holy life are not arbitrarily or externally imposed; they derive from within, as implications of the grace in which we stand, unfoldings of its virtualities, and there should be a naturalness to them, arising as they ought from a love that God puts deep within us–St. Augustine spoke of it as a “love of God inviscerated in our hearts” –inviscerated, the opposite of eviscerated!–that deep within us.
“Become what you are” is an ancient adage of philosophers and poets. You have been made holy; you are holy: then be holy, live holy! Live lives worthy of the love with which you have been, and are, loved. Things and persons are holy because set apart for God, set apart by God, for himself, and that is what God has done for everyone of us: he has loved us and embraced us in Christ, and we have the years of our lives to try to be as holy as God has already made us.