God’s word shines forth from the mountains this month. A single chorus of teaching resounds throughout almost all the Sundays in February, with Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. We hear it first on the last Sunday in January, and it grounds us in this time after Epiphany, inviting us to live fully cognizant of our baptism. On Jan. 29, the prophet Micah points up to the mountains as judge and jury, but by the end of this in-between season, Jesus will stand on one of those mountains shining in glorious light, announcing his identity as the Messiah and Savior and bathing us in his light.
Baptismal living is at the center of this time between the fire of Epiphany and the simplicity of Lent. We can carry the flame even as we strive to “walk wet.” On Feb. 5 we will hear a familiar baptismal text: “Let your light so shine before others.” Matthew 5:16 is invoked whenever a candle is given to a newly baptized person or sponsor, a visual reminder of the vocation of the baptized. Maybe we locate our baptismal candles and light them this month. Or maybe what needs igniting is our courage and creativity, the tools needed to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the world. We pray that baptismal fire lives within us.
There is a banquet of images in the readings this month to help us keep kindling the fire for faithful living. But there is one word in Jesus’ extended mountain homily that could threaten to dampen the fire. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus instructs his followers to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Perfect. What a beautiful yet condemning word. With it, our modern ears hear a whole host of pressures and expectations that simply aren’t present in that word.
The Greek verb “be perfect” is a form of the word telos. As a noun, telos means “ending” or “completeness.” Adjective forms include “whole” and “mature.” What a different set of associations we have when asked to “be whole” or “be complete” instead of “be perfect.” Perfection makes me think of flawless faces on magazine covers. Wholeness and completion evoke an integrity of personhood, a rootedness of spirit for which I yearn.
This is a challenge that we have been given the strength and mercy to meet daily. “Be fully grown,” Jesus asks of us. We laugh these days about “adulting,” sharing images on social media of people at their desks with spilled coffee under the words “I just can’t.” If worldly perfection is what we reach for, we will feel broken by countless little tasks that sap our energy. In contrast, this completeness, the “telos” of Matthew 5, comes from the belonging we have in Jesus. It’s expressed in our daily living and requires persistence, but it is begun in the free gift of grace we experience through baptism.
As we seek this wholeness and maturity together, let us listen to Jesus’ strong preaching with the faith that we have already been given—the water, fire, bread and wine we need to follow him.