"Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)Has this verse from scripture given anyone else trouble? I have always cringed a bit when reading or hearing it. Perfect?! Are you kidding?! How can I be perfect?!
Then, the verse from Luke will come to mind: "Nothing is impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)
But still, I would ask, perfection seems a tall order, and it is.
article in This Rock magazine says that the word perfect as used by Matthew means to be whole, complete or fully grown. It is the same word Jesus uses when talking to the Rich Young Man in Matthew 19:21 after he asks what more can he do to follow Christ. Jesus tells him "If you want to be perfect, go, and sell what you have, give the money to the poor and then come follow me." So many of us have the same question as the Rich Young Man--"What more can I do?" We realize we fall far short of the mark but sometimes feel helpless to change.
The Beatitudes--Prescription for Perfection
Jesus gives this teaching to be perfect in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. To be fully grown as people, we must follow Jesus' prescription of the virtues He outlines. He asks us to first of all realize our fundamental need for God ("poor in spirit"), to be aware of injustice ("mourn"), to know and long for true justice ("hunger and thirst for righteousness") and to endure the persecution that will inevitably come from seeking just treatment of all.
In order to be perfect, we must be meek, merciful, pure of heart and peacemakers. This is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect.
January is a very apt time to begin studying the acquisition of these virtues and perfection. Although seemingly counterintuitive at first glance, it is a very appropriate way to begin since perfection encompasses all the virtues within itself.
Perfection in Eastern Christianity
The Eastern Church has a theology called theosis, which touches on this concept beautifully. St. Athanasius of Alexandria said, "The Son of God became man that we might become god," meaning that we might become "partakers of the divine nature" as stated in the second letter of Peter, 1:4. As a means of explanation, St. Athanasius said that we are called to "become by grace what God is by nature." This illumination is possible only through God's grace (sometimes called God's energies in the East) and is something that takes a lifetime.
This concept of perfection being a long journey is shown in the icon on the sidebar and the one to the left, of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Jesus is shown at the top of the ladder waiting for the people who are climbing towards Him. We see angels helping individuals in their journey as well as demons who are trying their best to pull people off the ladder. This is beautifully illustrative of the struggle of each Christian to stay away from sin and strive, with God's help, towards virtue.
St. John Climacus outlined thirty steps towards spiritual perfection in a sermon by the same name. Such steps include detachment, obedience, repentance, mourning, meekness, freedom from anger and humility.
In the West, St. John of the Cross describes a similar journey to God in Ascent of Mount Carmel in which he describes the stages of prayer and eventual union with God.
Like it or not, perfection is our goal, but we are not alone. Indeed, it *is* impossible without the help of God's constant grace through prayer and sacrament, to keep us from falling into despair and surrender.
Let's strive for holy perfection, with God's help, in 2010!