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Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Homily. Readings: Hosea 2:16, 17, 21-22; Psalm 103; 2Corinthians 3:1-6; Mark 2:18-22.

Green Stole and Gospel
Readings: Hosea 2:16, 17, 21-22; Psalm 103; 2Corinthians 3:1-6; Mark 2:18-22

The liturgy continues to emphasize the newness that the coming of Christ upon the scene of revelation brings with it (Gospel). There is a whole New Covenant: a new relationship between God and man (Second Reading) which brings the Old Covenant to its intended term announced by Yahweh, where love and mercy rule (First Reading and Psalm). Therefore every reality, and every religious practice, such as fasting, must be understood and lived in a new light (Gospel).

Religion of law or of love?
We live in one of those eras (cyclically present in our history) when love and law are seen as opposing concepts: one is seen as excluding the other. A superficial understanding of the new state of affairs inaugurated by Christ might conclude that love is in, and consequently law is out. There is no doubt that in God´s plan revealed to us in the Scriptures, love is primary: in fact, in the end, only love will remain. The law can be and too often is used as an excuse not to love, as is amply illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Yet Jesus himself scotched the idea that he had "come to abolish the law" and affirmed that "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments … will be called least in the kingdom of heaven", and greatest the one who fulfils them (Matthew 5:17-19). The laws of God are not mere traffic regulations, or analogous to the rules of Scrabble: simply useful, conventional or even arbitrary. In reality, they are more akin to the laws of physics: they describe for us the way things are. God´s law essentially tells us what is compatible with love, whether or not we happen to see it that way ourselves. It is most useful, of course, when we don´t spontaneously concur with it. A law that always agreed with me would be just plain superfluous!

Christianity is a religion-relationship that is essentially a love affair. In truth, neither those who follow Church teaching, and make it their business to demand it of others to the last detail, in order to show what perfect Catholics they are, nor those who refuse to follow Church teaching believing themselves above the law, have understood the newness of Christ. Genuine discipleship involves living according to Christ´s example and will out of love. A person who does this can certainly apply St Augustine´s maxim, "Love, and do what you will", because he or she goes far beyond "the letter of the law", be this a law directly promulgated by Christ or one ratified in heaven because it has been established by his Church on earth (Matthew 18:18).

Catechesis: It is important for us all to grasp and make our own the relationship between law and love in the Christian dispensation. It is treated in relatively brief form in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1965-1974; 2052-2055), and at greater length in Veritatis Splendor (note in particular nos. 15 and 16). Alternatively, with Lent about to begin, a catechesis on the penitential spirit (CCC 1430; 2043) would be very opportune.

Letter and spirit
. We must take to heart St Paul´s admonition that "the letter kills, the Spirit gives life" – in the spirit in which he wrote these words. It is as bad to ignore it as it is to misapply it. It is not the spirit of the world that upstages the letter of the law, but the Spirit of Christ. And the Spirit is more demanding than the law. The commandments signal the minimum necessary in order to live in the Spirit and in love. From there on life in the Spirit begins. It supposes and goes beyond the written law. A commandment of the Church says I must attend Mass on Sunday; even if you fulfill it grudgingly or distractedly, you have met the letter of the law. The Spirit says, Bring your whole life and offer it to God, praying the whole Eucharistic celebration with the priest and the Christian community from the bottom of your heart. The law says, Do not steal. The Spirit says, Go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and then go and follow Jesus (Matthew 19:21). The rich young man came to Jesus because, even though he had observed all the commandments, he realized that he was still lacking; and this was what he was told to do. If we look into our hearts, we can discover the things in which he is telling us to let go of mere compliance with the law, and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit that lead us to genuine self-forgetful love for God and neighbor.

Fasting. Jesus´ call to conversion and penance is rooted in interior compunction and aims first of all at interior conversion; yet the Pharisees contrived to get precisely the opposite result from the same exercise: a sense of personal righteousness. It is clear then that simply abstaining from food or drink does not have magical consequences for the soul. The spirit behind such fasting is vital. So before deciding what you´re going to do this Lent, decide why you´re going to do it. In our society we´re liable to confuse it with a handy slimming regime with a holy face. That has no religious merit of itself. It may well be that what we need to diet from is not food, but television, or the internet, or bad humor, or unchaste thoughts. "To fast from strife/ and old debate,/ and hate;/ to circumcise thy life./ To show a heart grief-rent;/ to starve thy sin, not bin [belly];/ and that´s to keep thy Lent", the poet Robert Herrick wrote. Let go of the things that fill you with yourself and empty you of God. Abstain from your own more or less selfish satisfaction, whatever its form, and give your attention instead to your brothers and sisters in need.