22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time; Sept 2, 2012, Fr. Joseph Illo
A Pure Heart
In 1948, Mother Teresa picked up a man dying in a gutter, covered with worms. She did not want to do it; the very shape and smell of this man repulsed her. But once she overcame her initial repulsion, she recognized Jesus Christ in the man she was holding. He was the first of 47,000 people she and her sisters picked from gutters over the next 40 years. One of them, looking up into Mother’s face, asked “why are you doing this?” She replied, “Because I love you.”
It was not easy for Mother Teresa to practice this degree of charity. Daily, as she went into the streets, she climbed Golgotha to lift the dying body of Jesus from the Cross. To climb that hill, and to recognize the Body of Christ, she needed a pure heart. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,” Jesus says in the 6th Beatitude. The impure can’t even see God, let alone feel his love.
Hand Washing and Heart Washing
In the Gospel today, the question is one of purity. Christ’s disciples scandalize the Pharisees by launching into a meal without washing their hands. As St. Mark explains for his non-Jewish readers (that’s you and I), by the time of Jesus all Jews had adopted the ritual initially practiced only by priests: that of washing one’s hands before receiving God’s gifts. Catholic priests maintain this tradition—before Mass many priests wash their hands before clothing themselves with the sacred vestments, and during the Mass servers pour water over the priest’s fingers just before he enters into the Sacrificial Liturgy.
We must all purify ourselves before offering the sacrifice. So we begin every Mass with an act of penance, and again we purify our hearts just before receiving communion: “Domine, non sum dignus…. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof….” We cannot receive his gifts efficaciously, we cannot receive the gift of himself, with impure hearts. But how do we purify our hearts? Certainly not with mere soap and water.
Purity is always an issue. We may purify ourselves in the confessional, and Christ may purify us in the Holy Mass, but it isn’t long until we manage to defile ourselves again. We defile ourselves in slight ways in almost every conversation with peers. We defile ourselves by how we regard or disregard others. We defile ourselves slightly and sometimes grievously on the internet. We defile ourselves with food and drink, and in how we behave off campus. It is almost impossible to make our way through this world without getting dirty. Thus the need for constant purification.
The Pharisees insisted on hand washing, but how best to purify our hearts? St. Paul writes in our second reading: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Charity covers a multitude of sins, as St. Peter writes (1 Pet 4:8). Of course, we need to keep clear of worldly stain—the basic defilements, such as drugs, pornography, intemperance in food and drink, dirty speech, etc. But purity consists in seeking good, not just avoiding evil. Charity is the greatest good, and a pure faith cares for “widows and orphans.” Today that means befriending the friendless, helping someone with homework, listening patiently, from the heart, to people, calling Mom and Dad at least once a week, and putting up with annoying folks with a smile. Love is patient; love is kind.
The Immaculate One
Mother Teresa became a saint by the heroic exercise of charity. She founded a congregation known as the Missionaries of Charity. A few years after she picked up that first dying destitute from the gutter, she established her first Home for the Dying in a section of Calcutta called Kalighat. She named this home Nirmal Hriday, Bengali for the “Home of the Pure Heart.” The first day I went to that place, I felt weak and naseus. But the brothers took me first to a little statue of the Our Lady that Mother Teresa had set into a wall niche. And so everyone begins the day’s work at Kalighat with a prayer to the Immaculate Heart, asking for the purity necessary to attend to the dying Christ at Calvary.
Among all the wondrous virtues of Our Lady, her purity sets her apart preeminently. Don’t we long to share in that purity? Don’t we forget that such purity, such joy, is even within our grasp? Mother Teresa ended every prayer with this invocation: “Immaculate Heart of Mary, Cause of our Joy, pray for us.” We too can imitate Our Lady’s purity, and so share in her joy, by practicing the charity of her Son. Go to her, go to Him, to share in their purity.