“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Really? That seems like an impossible demand. If there is one thing about myself that I am absolutely sure of, it’s that I’m not perfect. And I’ve never met anyone else who is.
A few years ago I was on retreat at a Benedictine abbey. Staying there at the same time was a group of high school students. As I was walking past the chapel one night, I overheard a minute or so of a reflection by one of the girls in the group. She read the passage from Night Prayer: “May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May he preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:23). She then gave a short reflection, something like this:
Perfect. It’s a word that we hear all the time. We’re expected to get perfect grades, to have perfect looks, a perfect family… and we expect ourselves to be perfect. But this just isn’t possible, no matter how hard we try. The only perfect thing in life is Jesus. Even if we can’t be perfect, he is. And we can be his friend. That way, even though we’re not perfect, we’re united with someone who is.
There I stood, cut to the heart. The words were so authentic, as they were spoken by someone who wrestled with the words in the context of her own life, trying to connect her daily experience with her faith in Christ. Here was someone who was already invited into the life of perfection, receiving the grace of God, and now used by God as an instrument of grace to others – to me, standing there. I was two days away from making my first vows as a religious, on retreat with a leading scholar from Rome, and yet God reaches me through some anonymous teenager! God not only has a sense of humor, but it seems He also pays no attention to our own categories, determining who will teach who, the younger teaching the older.
Her interpretation is true. God alone is perfect, but He calls us to be with Him. It’s helpful to read both passages of Scripture above together: “May the God of peace make you perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” God Himself makes us perfect by sharing Himself with us. This is the basic teaching of the beatific vision – when we arrive in God’s kingdom, we will look upon God directly. First we think, “Great, I’m supposed to just stand there and look at him? Won’t that get old?” This kind of looking, though, isn’t physical sight as we have here, as if we’d stand on some platform in heaven and look at this giant, glowing orb we call God, full of love and energy. Instead, this is more like looking among friends or between lovers. It’s a way of looking at someone you’re united to, a look that confirms that bond and says what words cannot say. We will not be at a distance from God, but He will be in us, as we will be in Him – an everlasting embrace, which all of our earthly embraces merely mimic. Every moment of connection, of intimacy, of sheer awesomeness here below is a very slight hint of what awaits us ahead.
Then and only then will we be perfect, free from evil and mistakes and the growing pains of our earthly nature. Our hearts will no longer be restless, our minds no longer confused, finally and forever at home. As a professor of mine once put it: “Christ is our home. Home – where every desire is satisfied, and nothing needs to be explained.”
Yet in the gospel, Jesus’ command to be perfect is an instruction for this life, for us who are still on the way. If we are united to Him and obey His teaching by His help, then we are on the road to perfection – we have already received our first taste of our journey’s end. Not only does the Lord sustain us along the way, helping us to grow through every joy and every sorrow, but He also reaches out to us through our fellow travelers. Christians are instruments to one another – whether it’s two friends sharing their trials over coffee, a young priest blessing his own parents, or a random retreat conference by a teenager.
Thanks be to God for His endless mercy! He has not only called us to a perfect end, but He carries us on the way. Christ besieges us from every side, from within our hearts and without in our neighbor, that all who are in Christ may be made perfect together. We are not strong enough yet to see God. Someday, in the “sweet by and by,” we will arrive, and He will give us the “light of glory,” to strengthen us to look upon Him as He is. For now, He strengthens us as much as we need, for He knows our every need and exactly how to reach us.