The Word of God proclaimed is a living word. God has given his Word for all people and for all times with the purpose to shape and form us to be a people uniquely his own (cf. Deut 26:18). As we heard proclaimed in our first reading from Leviticus, we are to be holy as the Lord our God is holy (cf. Lv 19:1-2).
To be holy means we are to be set apart. There ought to be something different about us. As we read a few weeks ago, we are to be salt and light. The intent of our thoughts, words, and actions are not to be divisive but unitive, not to be a source of darkness but illumination, and not to be dehumanizing but empowering. Many times after someone speaks or acts in a negative way I hear someone make a comment along the lines of, he or she is just being human. Meaning we are fallible, that we are not perfect.
This is only partially true. We are finite, imperfect beings yes, but when we act in ways that are self-servicing and hurtful, we are not acting humanely. These words and actions are a reflection of our fallen and distorted humanity. The reality is that we are wounded by sin, but the good news is that we are not destroyed by it. We are more than our fallen nature, we do not have to stay stuck in it, and for God’s sake, may we resist the temptation to condone it as acceptable and normal!
All of us are in need of healing, and this begins when we diagnose our sickness. It is not normal to merely exist, to go through the motions, to accept a minimalist approach, to be anxious and stressed moment by moment, and to consistently assume a reactive and defensive posture.
God calls us to be so much more. As St Irenaeus has written, “The joy of God is the human being fully alive.” God didn’t create us just to survive, he created us to thrive!
How do we work to be fully alive, to thrive, to be holy? We love.
Love is not merely emotional, romantic, or a feeling, but an act of the will. As St Thomas Aquinas taught, “To love, is to will the good of the other as other.”
This is how Jesus can say, “offer no resistance to one who is evil” and to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We make someone an enemy when we refuse to see them as human and fail to love them as brothers and sisters. We make a person other when we dehumanize them and when we have contempt for them.
These words, even the words of the Gospel, mean nothing if they have no relevance to us and if they do not change our hearts from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
This morning I would like to focus on the word contempt. Contempt is a form of dehumanization. It is expressed when we think or show impatience, disinterest, irrelevance, in what someone has said or at its worst, when we consider another person worthless and beneath us. A vivid manifestation of contempt is when someone rolls their eyes.
This subtle gesture is devastating to one who receives it. If you have any extended experience with children or teenagers, you have been on the receiving end of this. But we cannot help our children or anyone else to heal from this destructive habit of contempt until we acknowledge our practice of it and heal it from within ourselves.
I am only in the beginning stages of doing so. I had heard of the word before but really had not given it much thought, nor did I believe I engaged in it. But there were times over the years in which my wife, JoAnn, expressed her hurt because of having been on the receiving end of what I now understand was my contempt, for those times I had rolled my eyes when she was sharing something important.
The most recent example was when JoAnn was packing up to head to California last May. For those of you who do not know, after receiving her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer we spent our remaining time together closer to our three adult children. In planning to pack, JoAnn asked me on a couple of occasions what clothes of hers that I liked. I shared whatever she felt she was most comfortable in. She also asked me to bring along a few clothes I wore that she liked. At the time, I didn’t get the point of her request. I was thinking of a hundred other issues and didn’t find what clothes we would be wearing all that important.
JoAnn went to California two weeks ahead of me as I finished out the end of the school year. When I arrived and unpacked, she noticed that I did not bring my pair of black jeans that she liked. The look on her face cut me to the heart.
After JoAnn died in September and I was going through her clothes, I recalled our conversation about them and realized the relevance and importance of the clothes. Since her time was limited we could wear that which we liked best on each other. I was crushed that I did not make that connection sooner, and it was then that I began to understand the posture of contempt.
Fortunately, our final three months together, God granted me the grace of being present and free of contempt. I accompanied JoAnn 24/7 each step of the way. I asked God why I could not have come to this realization sooner in our marriage than JoAnn and my last three months together, and I realized that it was my own stubbornness, my hardness of heart.
In confession, a few weeks after her death, the sorrow in recognition for the pain I caused, the tears that poured down my face, and the words of the priest assuring me that JoAnn from her new perspective could now understand helped me to begin to realize I was forgiven by her and by God.
I have been blessed in that for twenty-three years God acted through JoAnn in her life, dying, and in her death to consistently teach me how to love and for that I am grateful. The antidotes to contempt are contrition, to be truly sorry for the hurt we have caused and if possible, share that we are sorry; gratitude, not taking for granted but feeling and expressing our thankfulness for those God has placed in our lives, and love. When we love one another, heaven and earth are united, because the Holy Spirit, is present in our midst.
In three days, we will celebrate Ash Wednesday. May we use this time before receiving our ashes to examine our consciences and acknowledge where we have participated in the habit of contempt and for whom we have expressed contempt for in our thoughts, words, and actions.
Tolerance and civility will not change the polarization and division in our social, political, and spiritual spheres. During the forty days of Lent, if we can unlearn the habit of contempt and choose to be more contrite, thankful, and loving, we might begin to make a difference in our realm of influence.
We are to be holy as God is holy and that means we are to see each other as human again. We can, with the help of Jesus, become a part of the healing that is so needed in our communities, country, and world. Let us love one another as God has loved us.
God bless you.
Picture: JoAnn and I together in the meditation garden outside our apartment in Los Angeles last June. Photo credit: Giovanna Christian