On Sanctity: Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Where can you find the readings?  Here, of course.

There’s really nothing I like about this homily. Early in the week, it was intended to be a homily based more on the Gospel text, reflecting on the evangelist’s use of the verb “to see” – one of the most important verbs in the Johannine corpus – but the writing went nowhere.  So I revisited the readings, and was struck by Paul reminding the Corinthians of their call to holiness, so I decided to go with that…but I think I would do it differently if I could.  I forced the connection to Thomas Aquinas too much, and I didn’t really delve into Vatican 2 and the universal call to holiness the way I should have.  Finally, my delivery was really bad at the 4:00 PM Mass, and I only did ok in Claysville.  Just not a good weekend all around.  I might have to bench myself next weekend and ask the deacons to preach…

For the most part, Saint Paul’s letters follow a pattern.  He starts with a greeting that sounds rather formal to our way of speaking – at least, it does to me, and then he moves into the text of the letter itself.  He generally follows what is called a chiastic structure in his writing, which is to say he makes a very broad point, then starts to drill down on that, gradually tightening up what he wants to say until he punches you in the face with some profound theological truth, then he works back up the ladder, showing how the implications of that truth get carried out.  And then he concludes in a pretty standard fashion, maybe with some personal greetings or requests.

Again, that’s all speaking generally – there are some notable exceptions to this.  The letter to the Galatians, for example, doesn’t have a greeting; Paul is really angry at those folks so he jumps all over them from the beginning; second Corinthians has all kinds of trouble with it’s internal structure, and many scholars think that it’s actually a composite of multiple letters.  For the record, I do not.

Today’s reading is from First Corinthians, a letter that is pretty much devoid of any problems.  And that can make it easy to sort of gloss over it, especially this little snippet of the introduction that we get today.  Yeah, Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, and he’s hanging out with Sosthenes (why are Biblical names so cool?), big deal…  but it is a big deal, because Paul almost casually drops a line in there:  to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy…

You could very easily substitute a lot of other places for Corinth in that sentence: To the church of God that is in Washington; in Claysville; in wherever. Regardless of where you are, you have: A.) been sanctified in Christ Jesus, and B.) you are being called to be holy.  Let’s examine what those two things mean, but first, let’s complicate the issue a little bit.  Sanctity and holiness are basically synonymous.  A person or thing that has sanctity is holy; a holy person or thing possesses sanctity.  To get a better definition of those terms, we turn to our old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.  In the Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, q.81, he provides two definitions for sanctity.  We’ll need to use both.

The first is the most easily understood. For a thing to possess sanctity, it must be pure, clean, and free of defects.  The second characteristic is more complex.  Thomas says that a thing that is sanctified has “firmness.”  What this means is that it is upheld by law – ratified by law is the term he uses – and it is not to be violated.  Thomas concludes that a thing that is pure and not to be violated is a thing that is dedicated to the service of God.

So back to Saint Paul.  He reminds the church of Corinth, of Washington, of Claysville, of wherever, that they have indeed already been sanctified.  Through the blood that Christ shed on the Cross in expiation for our sins; by the invocation of His name at our baptism; in being fed by His Body and Blood at the Eucharist – we have already been sanctified.

“Now wait just a minute, Father,” some might object.  “I’m no monk.  I’m not off in some monastery somewhere.  I have a real life and real problems and I don’t have time to be about all this holiness stuff.”  Well, here’s the thing: it’s not optional.  As Paul says, we have been sanctified by Christ Jesus.  We are, in fact, already holy…which means we are to be dedicated to the service of God.

Paul’s not done.  With his next breath, after telling us we have already been sanctified, he tells us that we are being called to be holy.  It’s a continuing process.  We weren’t just set aside for God’s service and that’s that; we are continually being called to be of service to Him.  This isn’t a new idea.  Recall what was said by Isaiah the prophet:

It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

If you have been dedicated to the service of God, then you must be willing to actually be of service to God. When John the Baptist cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God!”, he wasn’t just saying, “Hey! Look at that guy!”; He was saying, “Hey!  Follow that guy!  Learn from Him!  Be His disciple!”

To the church of God that is in Corinth, in Washington, in Claysville, wherever: you have been sanctified by Christ Jesus and are called to be holy.  Let’s get to work.

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