BEFORE THE CROSS | With His help, we sculpt ourselves more like God

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

The great artist Michelangelo has a series of statues called "the incompletes." He began to sculpt them but never finished. It's unclear whether he was making a deliberate artistic statement or simply ran out of time. Clearly, however, the incomplete statues are a great metaphor for human life.

Like the statues, our identity has begun to emerge. Like the statues, that identity is incomplete. Finishing the work of carving our identity is the task we work on every day of our life.

Now, every artist works from a pattern — whether a physical pattern or an idea. What's our pattern as we carve out our identity? The readings this week give us some guidance.

The first line of the first reading and the last line of last reading articulate the same theme. We begin with this from Leviticus: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy." We end with this from the Gospel of Matthew: "Be perfect, therefore, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

The message is clear, though somewhat overwhelming: God's holiness and perfection is the standard by which we're to measure ourselves. If we're unfinished sculptures, then the pattern from which we're carving is God Himself.

The rest of the readings this week give us more detailed instructions. Again and again they exhort us to shape our hearts; again and again they give us a portrait of God. It's as though the Holy Spirit is saying: "Let me give you a picture of God. Then shape your hearts according to this pattern."

So, Leviticus gives us a series of instructions: You shall not steal. You shall not speak falsely. You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor. Each instruction ends with the line "I am the Lord." On one level that's simply a repetition of the 10 Commandments. But something is added by way of explanation. It's as though God is saying: "I am the Lord. I made you in my image. I'm calling you to be like me — to be holy as I am holy, and perfect as I am perfect. You can't do these things because I don't do these things."

God started the project of carving us out of stone into flesh, and He wants us to help Him finish it. How do we sculpt our lives? Every word we speak and every deed we do is a hammer stroke on the chisel. Every thought and feeling we cultivate is a small tap. Everything done in accord with God's law is a skillful stroke; it makes us more like Him. Everything that contradicts God's law makes us less like Him.

Does it really matter how we carve? The parable of the sheep and the goats answers (Matthew 25:31-46). The sheep, through their actions, have become like God, so they're admitted into Heaven. The goats, through their actions, have become unlike God, so they're sent to Hell.

The relationship between our actions and God's identity is so close that when Jesus gives us the Our Father, He says God will make His actions follow our pattern. "If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions." When we pray the Our Father, we're asking God to sculpt His actions according to our image.

Michelangelo's "incompletes" are a powerful metaphor for the task of life. The readings for the week exhort us to carve our identity in God's likeness. In our thoughts, words and deeds, what image are we carving? Whatever it is, we're sculpting ourselves for an eternal destiny. 

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