Divine Comedy of Dante - Dore Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:2-34
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37

The Beating Heart of Fellowship

Whoever relaxes a commandment is called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I do not know where I first heard it. Perhaps my soul simply absorbed it silently from the culture. Perhaps I saw the theme in sacred art and believed it was attested in Sacred Scripture. And it is this: "No one is was able to live up to the Law, so God made a New Covenant, a Covenant based only on love." The idea is that humankind has been in a protracted negotiation with God stretching the boundaries of acceptable conduct by bad behavior. Poor God, not wanting to lose all His human creatures, He simply has eased up on His demands.

Certainly, I have seen symbolic landscape paintings of the Renaissance with the Aera sub lege (Age under Law) on one side, depicted as a wasteland of darkness and thorns, and the Aera sub gratia (Age under Grace) on the other, a light-filled place of gentle graces and pastoral beauty. And then we hear the Sermon on the Mount and, from a distance, its sentences sound so wonderful that we wish we could just walk into this new world. The Age under the Law seems forbidding — the world of "No". The Age under Grace appears to be a new, Higher Law — the world of "Yes." But to see things this way — the "old and obsolete Law" being replaced by the "new and improved product" — is to misunderstand these symbols.

Without question, a new era of grace begins with God's entrance into the human lifeworld. Nonetheless, God's grace does not begin at this point; His participation in history as a human does. We see God's saving grace over and over again from the Creation of the world to the present moment. His love and kindness and grace begins with Him and with His Son begotten before all ages. And He is changeless. If we should perceive changes, they are due to us, for we are a restless and unsteady lot. To be clear about the significance of His Advent, the Son tells us that the Incarnation does not mean that the Law will be abridged in any way:

For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot,
will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the
least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom
of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom
of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and
Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Not a single dot of an "i" nor cross-bar of any "t" will be altered in the Law, Jesus says. And He says it emphatically, directly, and authoritatively.

I hear many hearts say. "But this is so daunting! I want the life of spiritual freedom that I thought I heard on the Mount! A new Law of Love! Does not Jesus say that the Law is summed up in loving God in total surrender and loving our neighbors, whom He loves so completely?" And the reply can only be, "Yes!" "Without question!" God's Divine Law is Love .... and always has been. And the Two Great Commandments — loving God and loving our neighbor, which sum up the Law and the Prophets — is the basis for our faith. But these very words, which we say every day in the Mass, were not new with Jesus. They were articulated by great Jewish teachers before Jesus.

We hold dear the Sermon on the Mount. For many, many people, simply hearing them was a life-changing moment. I remember watching the film King of Kings as a boy, feeling a wave of warmth spread from my soul to every part of my body, and then saying in my inmost heart, this is the life that I want!

Those who are deeply serious about the Beatitudes, want to put their precepts into action. First, we go back to read them more carefully. And then we discover something that we had not noticed before. Far from the Sermon on the Mount replacing the Mosaic Law, we are startled to find that the opposite is true. Jesus is not taking us to a new or different place. He repeats the Law of Moses but this time actually making each commandment much stricter:

"You have heard 'You shall not kill' ....
I say to you whoever insults .... is liable to the Hell of fire ....
You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery' ....
I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery ....
It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' ....
But I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an unlawful marriage, makes her an adulteress; ....
Again you have heard .... ‘You shall not swear falsely,
But I say to you, Do not swear at all, ....
The Law of Moses is not being replaced. In fact, it is going to an Olympic level of performance. This is a world-class race with world records being posted!

Those people who decide to live out the Beatitudes discover this great rigor: to give other people the shirt off their backs; to take in all homeless people that their homes can possibly hold; to turn the other cheek to those would harm them and their families; never to permit their minds to entertain a single, wrong thought. In the end, they find that the Beatitudes have made it impossible to live in the world. And that is their point. The Beatitudes set forth rules for a kind of life that is not of this world.

Many will cite St. Paul to prop up the argument that the Advent of our Lord, Jesus Christ, renders the Law of Moses null and void. But that is not true, not when one considers the totality of the Apostle's Correspondence. St. Paul argues that Law was a guide leading us to Heaven, much as Beatrice in Dante's La Divina Commedia was a guide to Dante in the Wood of Error. Saying it more simply, the Law functioned as training wheels on a bicycle. But once we are able to find that sweet spot of balance and speed and grace, we discover that we can nearly fly on a bicycle without those little side wheels. That is, once we practice the humane life prescribed in the Law — to care for the cast-out and the alien, to provide for the widow and the orphan, to give a healthy fraction of one's earnings to the poor, to be happy for our neighbors' good fortune rather than feel cheated ourselves, to love those who are difficult to love even within our own families, to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind — once we are able to do these things naturally and with ease, then we begin to see things as God sees them. And we find that our training wheels are no longer necessary. In fact, they are holding us back! The choice for true freedom and for abundant life is always exhilarating! And more exciting still, it is our choice, ours to have! Like deciding to fly on a bicycle, we need only get on, start pedaling, and before long .... we begin to soar away from the noise of the world!

In Sirach we read,

If you will, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
Before a man are life and death,
and whichever he chooses will be given to him.
Abundant life, living water, complete freedom. Like a parched, burnt man coming upon the mists and cool of an oasis spring, our lives are utterly changed.

So, what are we to make of those symbolic landscape paintings of the Renaissance? They oppose the Age under the Law on the left and the Age under Grace on the right. What is that world on the left so filled with thorns and leafless trees and mazes leading into ever deeper darkness? And, on the right, what are those sun-lit mountains climbing majestically through the clouds and the pleasant meadows and fields below? The dark Wood of Error is the world, and its darkness has to do with our own selfishness and our separation from God, Who alone is good. It is ourselves that makes the world a dangerous place. It is for this reason that the Law of Moses was given.

And the sun-lit pastures and hills nearly touching Heaven are the Kingdom of God. The Law Jesus gives us on the Mount of the Beatitudes is not a depiction of our life; it is a depiction of Heaven's life. The more we attempt to live it in this world, the more we will suffer .... as He did. What Jesus offers us in the Beatitudes is Himself and His invitation to be right there with Him. And He reminds us,

"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.
If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you
are not of the world, .... therefore the world hates you." (Jn 15:19).
But be of good cheer for He has conquered the world.

And the kingdom of love? In Heaven and on earth, the kingdom of love is ours for the having. I would like to share that four days ago, out of nowhere my handful of Facebook friends was joined by 750 Friend Requests from all over the world. I did not do anything to prompt this. I can only assume that it is of God. One day no requests .... and for years; then, the next day, a flood of living, breathing people seeking connection. The people who have contacted me are loving people who love God and each other. Their FB pages are filled with God's light. How quickly I realized that our Franciscan Community was becoming part of a living organism, which is one, long, beautiful, on-going prayer, for it is being said in every timezone on earth. All of these people pray for us, and we pray for them every morning before our Altar. Two hundred more came in last night; perhaps hundreds more will arrive in the days ahead — living souls offering their godly love and their prayers. They ask nothing of us. They wish only to be joined to each other and to us in the imperishable bonds of friendship and love, God's kind of love.

During this week that we have meditated on the Sermon on the Mount, I came into fellowship with a multitude. It turns out that they were sitting on the Sermon Mount with us, for we all were reading the same Mass lessons. They heard the Lord's words as we did. They recognized His invitation to be right there with Him. And they acted: they embraced the Law of Love. How grateful we are here at the Hermitage to be in their godly company. The Kingdom of Love. It is ours for the having. And of that kingdom, there will be no end.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.