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5th Sunday after Pentecost: We are in this together

Our journey through the liturgical year in the Vetus Ordo continues this week with out look into the Epistle reading for Holy Mass on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. For the last weeks we have been giving strong images of Christ as, for example, Good Shepherd. In a sense, the images are “outside” of us entering in. This week, there is a strong emphasis on our own attitude toward meeting God in the person of our neighbor. In a sense, this is our interior self-expressing outwardly who we are.

Our Epistle is from 1 Peter 3: 8-15a. Let’s see it in the Revised Standard Version. The section immediately before this, from vv. 1ff, concern the relationship of husbands and wives. The overall context of 1 Peter is time of persecution. Peter wrote from Rome to Christians in the East. Bl. Ildefonso Schuster frames the context well when commenting on today’s Mass formulary:

In the passage for this Sunday the first Vicar of Christ instructs his faithful flock how to guard by the practise of every virtue that treasure of benediction which it has received from its Lord. The imperial power is in the hands of Nero, who burns, dishonours, and condemns to the stake all who believe in Jesus. The Christians, as Tacitus himself acknowledges, are involved in the accusation, not only of being the incendiaries of Rome, but also of being enemies and haters of the human race. The Apostle teaches them that they must not mind this, for Jesus, too, was accused of every crime, yet he suffered in silence, not threatening, but blessing his persecutors. If his disciples wish to follow his example, nothing shall harm them, since on the morn of eternity God will render to them a hundredfold all that they shall have lost for a while in this world.

Here’s the reading.

Beloved: Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing. For

“He that would love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking guile;
let him turn away from evil and do right;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil.”

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.

Notice how, in the RSV edition, that central section is set off with shorter lines. This is due to the hymn-like quality of that section of the text.

We have in this reading a program for Christian living. In v. 18, if we look ahead a bit, for we should always read “around” the reading for greater context, we have a strong interpretive key for some of the advice we receive, namely: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Unity between us is evident from our common humanity, but it goes more deeply. Our connection was elevated in Christ who took up our humanity in an indestructible bond with His divinity.  We are members of His Mystical Person. He offered Himself to redeem us. At the Last Supper He prayed for our unity.

Christ died for that really annoying person who vexes you, just as much as He died for you. Therefore, “have sympathy” and “bless” in order to be a blessing.”

I was recently reminded of something from the life of St. Thérèse, the Little Flower. When in choir, there was an older nun that was behind St. Thérèse, the seniors being in the upper stalls and the juniors below. This older nun drove St. Thérèse crazy with noise that she would make, sounding like “two shells being rubbed together.” What would make such a noise? Perhaps ill-fitting dentures or rosary beads drawn across her teeth. St. Thérèse found it vexing until she determined that what was so annoying perhaps sounded like music to Christ. She was surely acting under the influence of grace in that, but it was also an act of her will. She made a choice about how she would deal with the annoyance.

Last week we had in the Gospel the miraculous catch of fish, the nets filled to bursting. Peter’s net in that moment was really Christ’s net. All those fish were jammed together in that net, flipping, flapping. They are fighting to get in, not to get out. It’s a miraculous catch. We are all in Christ’s Net. If it is Christ’s Net it is exactly the best possible place for the fish to be. And since they are fish, only critters, grace can compel them. We, on the other hand, cannot be compelled by grace. We must choose to cooperate with it. So, we should be fighting to be in Christ’s Net. It’s the best place to be. It might seem that it restricts, but it’s where our true freedom is found, not freedom to do as we please, but freedom to be pleased to choose to please. And the more in the net the better.

In the miraculous draught of fish, Christ did the heavy lifting, in that he made it necessary to lift something heavy. It was Peter’s net so it was Peter’s catch. Peter also had help to get it in. He had to have help. Yet it was Peter’s catch. This is what Christ does with us: he gives us graces, things to do. We make the choice to accept and do them. The Christ Himself makes our hands strong enough to get them done. Hence, the works we perform under the grace that perfects us are simultaneously our works and Christ’s works. Being His, they are meritorious. Being ours, they are also meritorious for us, who merit nothing on our own. As St. Augustine puts it, God crowns His own merits in us.

Circling back to the Epistle today, Peter the Fisherman underscores the necessary unity of those in Christ’s net. Dom Prosper Guéranger, commenting on this reading, also takes up the theme of unity, but using the image of members of Christ as stones for the building of the heavenly city, the foundation being Christ Himself.  Peter’s Letter serves as a blueprint for how those stones fit together.  Are the stones rightly suited for their task? Do they provide good stability and beauty? Will charity cement them? If not, the non-adaptable stones must be sorted out and discarded.  The same applied to the miraculous catch. All are brought into the net, but not all are selected in the end. Some are thrown out, not thrown back.

The concept of unity, the fact that we are all in this together, is also a compelling thought to help us remain on the straight and narrow.  Sin hurts us not only as individuals, but also in the collective. Your sin drags me down as mine drags you down. We have choices to make especially in regard to how we will deal with others in unity in Christ. If you reverence Christ in your heart, then your heart will retune itself to your neighbor, even the abusive.

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