21st February. Friday, Week Six
Saint Peter Damian, bishop and doctor of the Church.
Pietro Damiani (c. 1007-1073) from Ravenna, Italy, was an 11th-century reforming theologian, canonist and Benedictine monk. Dante places him in a high place in Paradiso as preparing the way for Saint Francis of Assisi.
1st Reading: James 2:14-24, 26
(Faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Gospel: Mark 8:34–9:1
(One must lose life in order to save it. No use in gaining the whole world and losing oneself.)
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Conflict of interests
The gospel contrasts two forms of activity: taking up one’s cross or acting for personal aggrandizement. Again the action which threatens to destroy us is the one which adds permanence of our life; the action which seems to affirm and build us up turns on us and destroys us. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
In talking about good works, James cites two rather unusual examples from the hundreds available in the Hebrew Scriptures: first, Abraham, ignorantly thinking that he must worship God in the fashion of his Canaanite neighbours and so be willing to kill his long-awaited son; and then, Rahab the harlot, who though misguided in her profession, welcomed the incoming invaders as the wave of the future. Scripture affirms that God can see a brighter future and even a purer holiness in people whose hearts are sincere and honest than in others whose external behaviour wraps them in mantles of splendid display, yet whose mind is shallow with its treasure located in esteem and reputation. The latter can always say the proper formula to the unfortunate needy neighbour but do nothing meet their actual needs. “What good is that?” James trenchantly asks.
To act against our selfish inclinations and pious camouflage, to reach out spontaneously with practical help to the neighbour in need, means to take up one’s cross. To stand by someone in need and disgrace is to follow the way of Jesus who befriended prostitutes and tax collectors. It means to lose one’s life; and in the depth of that faith we will have a glimpse of the true “kingdom of God established in power.” Where we seem to have lost everything, we become fully alive in a way that can never taste death. No one can take that vision from us, the memory of being with Jesus and reaching out, as he did, to those genuinely in need of us. What can equal life such as this, joyful like Abraham’s joy in the return of Isaac, with dignity restored, like Rahab the harlot in saving the lives of the messengers.